Will's word

28th April 2006 at 01:00
The modern use of this word, with its emphasis on machinery and its parts, came into English in the late 17th century. Before that, it had a more general sense of a worker with a particular skill - of any kind. This is the sense we find when Coriolanus says to Volumnia: "Do not bid me... capitulateAgain with Rome's mechanics" (Coriolanus, V.iii.83). The contemptuous use here makes the sense equivalent to "rabble". This is the only use of the word as a noun in Shakespeare, but it appears a few more times as an adjective. The Archbishop of Canterbury describes the honey-bees as "poor mechanic porters crowding inTheir heavy burdens" (Henry V, I.ii.200): the reference is to worker bees. And the sense of "common" or "commonplace" is dominant when Cleopatra talks about the "mechanic slaves" that would "uplift us to the view" (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.209). Related too is the word mechanical, meaning "manual worker" or "menial", best known with reference to the group of rustics - the "rude mechanicals" - of A Midsummer Night's Dream (III.ii.9).

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

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