Monday, June 22, 2009

[WFOTM] Word Fact of the Moment #5


A term of reproach?

Halliwell-Phillips, in his elucidating and quite often unintentionally hilarious Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words from the 14th Century (1847) has some doubts upon the actual meaning of this sixteenth century zinger. He quotes Richard Maddox, MS. Addit. 5008:

1582. Feb. 22, we went to the theater to se a scurvie play set owt al by one virgin, which ther proved a fyemartin without voice, so that we stayd not the matter.

Quite outside of the matter of whether our narrator should have been attending a "scurvie play" or not (and in attending should have expected some sorts of hooligantry), exists Halliwell-Phillips' questioning of whether Fyemartin is a term of reproach in context.

As it turns out, a Fyemartin - or a "Freemartin," in less archaic and more earthy terms - is a sterile female animal with strong masculine traits, a hermaphrodite. Something that happens in mixed sex cattle twins and in for a long time in folklore was assumed to be the same in mixed sex human twins.

Dymphna Callaghan's Shakespeare without women (2000), clears this up, "the {aforementioned} incident is, then, not about female performance but about poor masculine performance and demonstrates that an inadequate voice in the matter of female impersonation might well result in playgoers quitting the theatre, or, as Marston's players suggest, the actor being hissed from the stage" (p71).

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