Will's word

3rd March 2006 at 00:00

(adjective) free in giving; ample; magnanimous

Shakespeare is in fact the first recorded user of this adjective, but the more modern meanings have all developed after his death.

The most common usage (the financial one) does not emerge until towards the end of the 17th century. So we must forget all about money when we hear Claudius describing Hamlet as being "most generous" (Hamlet, IV.vii.134) or Holofernes addressing Armado as "most generous sir" (Love's Labour's Lost, V.i.86). In such uses, the word means "well-bred, mannerly, noble-minded".

It is the same when Edmund describes his mind as being "as generous" as that of his brother's (King Lear, I.ii.8) or Desdemona telling Othello that the "generous islanders" have invited him to dinner (Othello, III.iii.277).

In Troilus and Cressida II.ii.156), we have to forget the modern collocation of generous bosoms (ie "large breasts"). Here Paris is reacting to the suggestion that the Trojans give up Helen: "Can it be That so degenerate a strain as thisShould once set footing in your generous bosoms?" He is not suggesting that Priam, Hector, et al are fat.

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