Will's word

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Portly (adjective) "stout, corpulent"

This rather elegant way of referring to someone as "fat" is, with one exception, not recorded in English until the 1720s. When the word first arrived, in the early 16th century, it meant "stately, majestic, dignified". This is the only possible sense if applied to ships, as when Salerio describes Antonio's argosies as having "portly sail" (Merchant of Venice I.i.9), or to abstract nouns, as when Worcester talks of "greatness" as being "portly" (Henry IV Part 1, I.iii.13). The exception is Falstaff's description of himself as having a "portly belly" (Merry Wives of Windsor, I.iii.57). Achilles, too, is described as being of "large and portly size" (Troilus and Cressida, IV.v.162). These are unusual uses: it is the sense of "dignity" which Shakespeare usually uses. When Capulet tells Tybalt that Romeo "bears him like a portly gentleman" (Romeo and Juliet, I.v.66), he is not suggesting that the great lover is overweight.

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

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today