Will's word: Painful

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Painful (adjective) feeling or giving pain; irksome

Both subjective (feeling pain) and objective (causing pain) senses are found in Shakespeare. In The Rape of Lucrece, an old man is said to be "plagued with cramps and gouts and painful fits" (line 856), and in King Edward III, the king proclaims "An intercession of our painful arms" (V.i.237). The meaning extends to include such senses as "arduous" and "gruelling", as when King Henry talks of "rainy marching in the painful field" (Henry V, IV.iii.111). But most of Shakespeare's uses reflect an older, late 14th-century sense which is now lost: "painstaking, diligent, laborious." Coriolanus talks of "painful service" (Coriolanus, IV.v.71), the Princess of "painful study" (Love's Labour's Lost, II.i.23), Katherina of "painful labour" (The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.148), and the Sonneteer of a "painful warrior" (Sonnet 25, line 9). The meaning is sometimes uncertain: when Ferdinand, heaving logs, says "some sports are painful", it isn't entirely clear whether he means "causing pain" or simply "laborious" (The Tempest, III.i.1).


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

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