Will's word

Supervisor (noun)"someone who inspects or directs the work of others" This is an unusual usage, in the way it misleads, because actually the modern sense is older than the Shakespearian one. We find references to "supervisors of works" from the 15th century. Shakespeare uses the word in the sense of "onlooker, spectator, observer" and is the first person recorded to have done so. The instance occurs in the First Quarto of Othello, where Iago says to Othello, referring to Desdemona's supposed infidelity, "Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?" (III.iii.392). He doesn't mean would Othello supervise the activity, but would he wish to watch it taking place? The verb has a similar sense: In Love's Labour's Lost, Holofernes asks Nathaniel to let him read Berowne's letter to Rosaline: "Let me supervise the canzonet" (IV.ii.120). The letter is already written. He means "read it through". This is another Shakespearean coinage, though - as with supervisor - not one that ever caught on.

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

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