Will's word

16th June 2006 at 01:00
The original meaning in Old English was "serpent, snake, dragon". From there, the word developed a sense of "any animal that creeps or crawls", and from there we get the modern meanings, with their emphasis on harmlessness, smallness, or inferiority . All senses were available to Shakespeare, but we only find the first two in the plays, hence it is important not to weaken the impact of the language by reading in the dominant present-day associations. In particular, we must forget them when we hear Cleopatra ask for "the pretty worm of Nilus" (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.243) or Hermia talk of a worm killing Lysander (A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii.71). Worms in this sense have venom, as affirmed by Pisanio (Cymbeline, III.iv.36) and Macbeth (Macbeth, III.iv.28). However, when Viola talks of a worm infecting a bud (Twelfth Night, II.iv.110), she is using the word in the sense of "microbe, bug". Leonato uses this sense too, when he talks of Benedick's toothache as "a humour or a worm" (Much Ado About Nothing, III.ii.25).

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