Will's word: beetle

9th December 2005 at 00:00
(noun) type of insect

The word beetle is known from Anglo-Saxon times: bitula. We find it several times in Shakespeare, as when Isabella talks about "the poor beetle that we tread upon" (Measure for Measure, III.i.82).

But in Old English we find bietel referring to a kind of beating instrument - which by Shakespeare's time had come to mean a heavy ram. So when Falstaff exclaims, "fillip (strike) me with a three-man beetle" (Henry IV Part 2, I.ii.230), he means a sledgehammer that would take three men to lift. And when Petruchio curses his servant for being a "whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-eared knave" (The Taming of the Shrew, IV.i.143), he means no more than "block-headed".

However, the figurative sense may derive from the insect. When Mercutio, referring to his face-mask, says, "Here are the beetle brows shall blush for me" (Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.32) or Horatio talks of the cliff "that beetles o'er his base into the sea" (Hamlet, I.iv.71), both usages refer to something that overhangs or is prominent, probably an allusion to the tufted antennae found in some species of beetle.

David Crystal

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words (Penguins)

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now