Will's word: Distracted

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Distracted (adjective) "unable to think clearly, anxious"

Today the sense is quite mild: if we feel distracted our minds are not focusing well on some issue. At the end of the 16th century, when the word came into English, both as a verb and adjective, it had a much stronger meaning. Shakespeare himself is the first recorded user of a sense of great mental disturbance, "perplexed, confused", even to the point of madness.

Hamlet, having just met his father's ghost, refers to his head going round and round as a "distracted globe" (Hamlet, I.v.97). This is the usual Shakespearian meaning, applied to people. Just occasionally, there is an even stronger nuance when the word is applied to things: when the King of France says "to the brightest beams Distracted clouds give way" (All's Well That Ends Well, V.iii.35), he means they have been divided or torn apart - a sense that stayed in the language for only half a century.

David Crystal

David Crystal is 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