Will's word

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Mutiny (noun) "refusal to obey military superiors"

When mutiny came into English, in the 16th century, it had both a general and a particular application. The present-day usage retains only the latter, referring to military disobedience, especially by sailors.

Shakespeare only ever uses the word in the more general sense of "riot", "state of discord", or "civil disturbance". The opposed families in Romeo and Juliet "From ancient grudge break to new mutiny" (Prologue, 3), Gloucester talks to Edmund about "mutinies" in cities (King Lear, I.ii.107), Iago tells Roderigo to "go out and cry a mutiny" (Othello, II.iii.151), and Antony says to the crowd, "let me not stir you up To such a sudden flood of mutiny" (Julius Caesar, III.ii.212). There is a metaphorical use too, meaning "rebellion" or "quarrel", as when King Henry says of Cardinal Wolsey "There is a mutiny in's mind" (Henry VIII, III.ii.120).

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

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