On “Tweet of the day” on Radio 4 (two-minute clip), the actor Sam West talks about the line in Hamlet “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw,” which he had assumed was intended as nonsense. He discovered from a Norfolk bird-watching friend that “hanser” is Norfolk dialect for a Grey Heron, whose appearance in flight could be mistaken for a hawk. My thanks to Alastair for this bit of Shakespeariana, and for the glossary of Norfolk dialect words with which he accompanied it.


  1. Fascinating. Although Shakespeare being, like me, an Oxfordshire man, I wonder how he might have come across this word. I’d never heard of it until now.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    # The English surnames Earnshaw, Hernshaw, Herne, and Heron all derive from the heron, the suffix -shaw meaning a wood, referring to a place where herons nested.[26] #

  3. This is, indeed, an argument used for non-Will authorship of Shakespeare.

    (The counter to which is that similar terms were widely distributed, apparently.)

  4. My recollection is that there are texts or emendation that read “heronshaw” for “handsaw.”

  5. >whose appearance in flight could be mistaken for a hawk …

    Is it back from extinction? The fabled long-necked falcon of the eastern British Isles?

    Hawks and herons wouldn’t be confused by anyone who had seen them. They’re about as different as two birds can be. Both in flight and at rest. I think this is more like knowing Shit from Shinola. You’d have to be daft to confuse a hawk and a heron. Hamlet isn’t boasting about his critical skills, just saying he’s only daft when he wants to be.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    A heron in flight couldn’t be mistaken for *anything*.

  7. David — in which atlas is or ever has been Stratford-upon-Avon not in Warwickshire?

  8. David Marjanović says


  9. Wright EDD vol.3 p.147

    HERONSEW, sb. Sc. Nhb. Dur. Cum. Wm. Yks. Not. Lin. Nhp. War. e.An. Ken.

    Also written heerinseugh Nhb. ; heerinsew w.Yks. ; herensew Cum. ; heronseugh N.Cy. Nhb. ; heronsue Lakel. n. Yks. ; herrensue Wm. ; herrinseu e.Yks. ;

    and in forms anser Nrf ; hahnser Suf ; hahnsey Suf ; hancer Nrf ; handsaw N.Cy. ; hansa e.Suf ; hanser e.An. ; hansey e.Suf ; harnsa Suf ; harnsee Nrf ; harnser Nrf Suf ; harnsey e.An. ; hearingsew w.Yks. ; hearnshaw Ken. ; hearnshrow Ken. ; herinshrew w.Yks. ; hernseugh Nhb. ; hernsew n.Yks. Nhp. ; hernsey e.An. ; hernshaw Not. Nhp. War. Ess. Ken. ; hernsue Lin. ; heronshaw Nhp. ; heronsheugh Nhb. ; heronshaw Slk. ; haronshrew Not. ; heronshuf Nhb. ; heronsyueff Nhb. ; herringsew w.Yks. ; herringshaw Lin. ; herringsue n.Yks. m.Yks. ; herrinsho Cum. ; homsey e.An.

    The heron, Ardea cinerea.

  10. I was born on the borders of the two folk, and have enjoyed that comparison from youth.
    Cough t’hell if we dun’t tend to keep wards*; one of my other favourites is Shuck, the devil dog with shining eyes whom I fondly associate with Beowulf and the “scuccum ond scinnum”.

    * Never could write accents.

  11. The surname Henshaw, as it turns out, is unrelated.

  12. Oddly enough, in Saharan oases I’ve noticed a tendency to confuse “hawk” with “stork”, which makes just as little sense to me. I suppose they’re both unusually large birds, but that’s about as far as it goes…

  13. @Lilyami — well, it’s not all that far from Oxfordshire!

  14. Nares said that while it was originally hernshaw, it was already a proverb in the corrupt form by Shakespeare’s time.

  15. while it was originally hernshaw, it was already a proverb in the corrupt form by Shakespeare’s time

    This sort of makes sense. If the word wasn’t in Shakespeare’s dialect then he couldn’t have noticed that it is corrupted. But, as Hat often reminds us, usage rarely follows logic.

  16. Delurking here to register my bafflement as to the Latvian translation where the line goes “es atšķiru vanagu no sikspārņa” (“I know a hawk from a bat”). Sure, it *is* a delightfully weird picture, but why a bat?

  17. I was surprised to learn recently that Shakespeare (The Merry Wives of Windsor, ca. 1597, published 1602) gives the first reference to Herne the Hunter:

    Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
    Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
    Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
    And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
    And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
    In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
    You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
    The superstitious idle-headed eld
    Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
    This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

    I had previously assumed, undoubtedly influenced by John Masefield’s The Box of Delights and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (itself almost certainly influenced by Masefield), that Herne was a venerable Celtic Cernunnos/Wild Hunt character. If the name “Herne” really meant “heron,” that makes things all the stranger for this character; the name does not seem to fit Shakespeare’s or any later characterization of him that I am aware of.

    According to the Wikipedia page, there is a pirated 1602 text with a different description of the hunting ghost, who is given the more natural seeming name “Horne.” Moreover, according to the OED, herne is also the Old Frisian form of hern/hirn, meaning “corner, nook, hiding place.” The spelling also makes not especially surprising appearances as Middle English spellings of iron, yearn, run, and the (generally dative) modification hern of the pronoun her.

  18. The ancient German translation on Gutenberg ( http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/-5601/1 ) has the whole story in a footnote – aside from its outdated orthography, though, no idea when the note might date from (was probably added by a more recent editor and is not from the 1700s, but I have no idea):

    Hamlet. Ich bin nur toll bey Nord oder Nord-West; wenn der Wind von Suden bläßt, kan ich einen Falken sehr wol von einer Hand-Säge unterscheiden.****

    {ed.-**** Ein damals gewöhnliches Sprüchwort. Eigentlich soll es heissen, einen Falken von einem Reyger-Nest; allein das gemeine Volk machte aus (Hern-shaw, (I know a hawk from a hern-shaw) hand-saw) eine Hand-Säge, vermuthlich, damit die Redensart possierlicher klinge, wie es vielen Sprüchwörtern zu gehen pflegt.}

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Wieland. Ancient. That makes Will himself almost antediluvian.

    I’m guessing that Ed is Mr. W himself. The idea that sayings are corrupted by humor deliberate (to make them possierlich) is interesting but tough. Mr. W was no fool, of course, so he gets a provisional pass from me, if it be he.

    Ancient is closer to the source in this case.

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Reyger seems to have been an alternate spelling, up there with Reiher (heron). What’s with the g ? DM might know.

  21. @stu – I was using “ancient” hyperbolically; I’m always surprised to find that any translation from hundreds of years ago is still in print. Even the King James Bible seems increasingly harder to find these days.

    I don’t know the technical explanation / description for the sound change but there’s a lot of switchover between Reihe- and Reige- words in different German dialects.

    By the way, apparently Italian “Rigoletto” is from a similar Germanic root and means a kind of line dance? I would NOT have guessed that.


  22. Trond Engen says

    Wieland der Wörterschmied.

    Wieland is a rare name in German, but for some reason Wikipedia a handful named Schmied or Schmidt.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Sure, it *is* a delightfully weird picture, but why a bat?

    Because a bat has a shape much more like that of a hawk? Just guessing.

    DM might now.

    Not really, but Wiktionary offers this:


    seit dem 9./10. Jahrhundert bezeugt; neben Reiger (bis 19. Jh.), mittelhochdeutsch reier, reiger, althochdeutsch reigaro, urgermanisch *xraigrō, Erweiterung von indogermanisch *kreik- ‚schreien‘, vergleiche litauisch krỹkti, russisch krik (крик) ‚Schrei‘, walisisch crëyr ‚Reiher‘.

    Two footnotes, one of which is a Schrijver paper.

    Not having seen that paper, I think that the g-less form is from a northern Central or southern Low German dialect where [ɣ] became [j]. The h would then be a purely orthographic redundant marker of the syllable boundary.

  24. David Marjanović says

    (Anybody have an idea what a Welsh ë is supposed to be? Copied from a misprint for ê, if that even exists?)

  25. ë is correct in “crëyr”; Welsh does use a diaeresis in some cases to indicate that adjacent vowels are not combined into one syllable, though it is often omitted in practice where dictionaries would include it. Middle Welsh had “crehyr” making the two syllables obvious, and the h is preserved in the modern plural “crehyrod”.

  26. “Because a bat has a shape much more like that of a hawk?”

    But it doesn’t at all.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Well, it doesn’t have a long neck or long feet sticking out, and it’s not as large as a heron in these latitudes either.

  28. But all the other similar phrases are contrasting two things that are very different. Hawks and herons. Shit and Shinola. Your arse and your elbow. Your arse and a hole in the ground. I’m sure there are others.

  29. Stu Clayton says

    Apples and oranges. Sense and sensibility. P’s and Q’s. Fear and trembling. Dick and Jane. Ontogeny and phylogeny. Mountains and molehills. Cats and dogs.

  30. I think the point with shit and Shinola (a brand of shoe polish), at least the brown version of the latter, is that they do look fairly similar. Though I’m sure the odor is diagnostic.

  31. Tit and arse.

  32. Brett:
    …herne is also the Old Frisian form of hern/hirn, meaning “corner, nook, hiding place.” The spelling also makes not especially surprising appearances as Middle English spellings of iron, yearn, run…

    hjørne is the current Norwegian & Danish word for corner (hörn is the Swedish). Jern is Norwegian iron. Hjerne is brain, I’m not sure why.

  33. “Apples and oranges.” – again, two things that are very obviously different.

    “Sense and sensibility.” – I would enjoy learning that literary critics insult other literary critics with phrases like “did you see her last piece in TLS? She doesn’t know her sense from her sensibility.”

    “P’s and Q’s.” – I have always interpreted this phrase as meaning that the two things are very similar and easily confused (when handwritten) – so if you are careful and detail-focussed, you’ll mind your p’s and q’s.

    “Fear and trembling. Dick and Jane. Ontogeny and phylogeny. Mountains and molehills. Cats and dogs.”

    I fear we may be drifting from the point slightly.

  34. David Marjanović says

    I fear we may be drifting from the point slightly.

    Ontogeny Discombobulates Phylogeny

  35. Trond Engen says

    Here are two fairly recent ones from Norwegian:

    Skille snørr og barter “tell snot from mustache”
    Skille skitt og kanel “tell dirt from cinnamon”

  36. January First-of-May says

    I’m reminded of a classic Russian joke (not sure of which period) – supposedly, a truly intelligent person should be able to distinguish… the next part might only work in Russian…

    Гоголя от Гегеля, Гегеля от Бебеля, Бебеля от Бабеля, Бабеля от кабеля, кабеля от кобеля, а кобеля от суки.

    (Except for the last pair, which is “a male dog from a female dog [=bitch]”, all of those are sound-alike similarities. Apparently sometimes a final pair is added – “and a bitch from a decent woman”.)

  37. Well, the mentioning of Babel would date it to be not earlier than after the Civil war, when Babel became famous.

  38. I never heard the full-scaled joke, but it originated probably from Katkov’s quip: “The only thing you hear about is Gogol and Hegel and Homer”

  39. It could have started with “Гоголя от Гегеля, Гегеля от Бебеля,” and Babel got added when he came along. There’s always room for one more!

  40. Sure. Babel only dates that specific version.

  41. I’ve seen an interpretation, which, if it’s not true, should be: It’s that Handsaw does refer to a heron, but not in that they are easily confused, nor that they are obviously different, but in that a hawk is bird of prey–a hunter, and heron is a game bird–the hunted. Hamlet’s saying “I may act mad but don’t think you can put one over on me, I can tell the difference between a friend an an enemy.”

  42. John Cowan says

    a tendency to confuse “hawk” with “stork”

    On the other hand, it used to be thought that Old World vultures were the former (they are, broadly conceived) and New World vultures the latter (turns out they are in a group of their own close to Accipiterformes and not close to storks).

  43. Jack Dunwell says

    Well. Why not 2 birds Hanser and Hawk ?
    They couldn t be more different.

    And why not Hawk and a Handsaw
    where the term Hawk is used even now for holding plaster
    It would have immediately rung bells with the audience of tradesmen, plastering those houses in Stratford on Avon and sawing the oak frames.

    Shakespeare didn ‘t write for Shakespearean scholars after all!

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