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Strange but True: Descriptive words trace origins back to Shakespeare

Bill Sones and Rich Sones: Shakespeare contributes to the English language in more ways than one.
BY BILL SONES AND RICH SONES, PH.D., For The Oklahoman Published: May 27, 2014


Q. This year marks the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. His plays and poetry have enriched the English language, with some of his characters even lending their names to singular descriptive words. There are of course those Romeos in our midst (after the passionate lover in “Romeo and Juliet”), but who are the Portias, the Prosperos, Timons and Dogberrys?

A. Portia, the heroine of “The Merchant of Venice,” is a rich heiress who disguises herself as a lawyer to save another’s life, says Anu Garg in his A.Word.A.Day website. Hence “Portia” represents a female lawyer, as in Mike Madrid’s 2013 “Divas, Dames & Daredevils:” “Listen sister ... law isn't the only subject I’ve mastered ... I may be a Portia, but my middle name’s Dempsey!” And if you're familiar with “The Tempest,” Prospero is the deposed Duke of Milan and a magician, so his name suggests someone who can influence others’ behavior or perception without their being aware of it.

Timon, the misanthropic hero of “Timon of Athens,” gives his name to one who hates mankind. Finally, calling someone “Dogberry,” the blundering constable in “Much Ado About Nothing,” means you consider him an incompetent, pompous official, as in Jack Beatty's “Age of Betrayal” (2007): “The mayor of Bangor, Maine vetoed a time-altering resolution passed by its city council ... for which Railway Age lampooned him in an editorial that began ‘A Dogberry who holds the office of mayor.’”

Q. How many bananas does it take to get you drunk?

A. Depends on who grows them and how they're processed, says Amy Stewart in “The Drunken Botanist.”

Most of us have only eaten the one kind of banana carried by supermarkets, but actually hundreds of cultivars exist, including the so-called beer bananas of Uganda and Rwanda.

“Farmers prefer to grow beer bananas... because they can process the fruit into a highly profitable beer that, while short-lived, does not perish as quickly as the bananas themselves do. Transformed into beer, the bananas are easier to get to market,” Steward said.

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