Will's word

28th May 2004 at 01:00

Word meaning (noun) 'misuse; strong verbal disapproval; physical maltreatment'

This noun came into English in the 16th century (the verb had already been around for over a century), and quickly developed its range of senses, some of which are now obsolete. When Angelo says to disguised Mariana:

"This is a strange abuse. Let's see thy face" (Measure for Measure, V.i.203), she has not been abusing him in any modern sense of the word.

Here, abuse means "hoax" or "deception". Several other nuances relate to the modern sense of "misuse", as when Brutus talks about "the time's abuse" to Cassius (Julius Caesar, II.i.115); here he means the corrupt practices of the times. When the Chorus asks us to "digest Th'abuse of distance" (Henry V, II.Chorus.32) he is asking us to forgive the "flouting" or "violation" involved in treating real distance in an imaginary way. And when Warwick says to King Lewis: "Did I let pass th'abuse done to my niece?" (Henry VI Part 3, III.iii.188), the sense is "offence, wrong" - a usage first recorded in Shakespeare.

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