Shakespeare’s World.

Roberta Kwok reports in the New Yorker about a website where anyone can contribute transcriptions of bits of manuscripts from Shakespeare’s time:

The first-known records of many words are in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s not always clear which he invented and which were already commonplace. The handwritten material of Shakespeare’s contemporaries is “more or less hidden,” according to Laura Wright, a historical linguist at the University of Cambridge and a Zooniverse volunteer. “Of course it looks like Shakespeare invented all this stuff, because his stuff is in print,” she said.

To tackle the problem, Zooniverse partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., and with the Oxford English Dictionary. Volunteers for Shakespeare’s World can view images of documents from the Folger’s manuscript collection, including family correspondence, household recipe books, and letters by state officials, and transcribe as little or as much of a page as they want. […]

Already, the project has yielded linguistic discoveries. Volunteers have found recipes for “Taffytie” and “Taffity” tarts, which might be variations on “taffeta,” implying a delicate texture. Combined with an existing record of a similar usage in the O.E.D., the new examples suggest that this was an established genre of dessert, like lemon-meringue pie is today, according to Philip Durkin, the dictionary’s deputy chief editor. A volunteer came across a recipe for “portugall farts”; Durkin noted that the O.E.D. already contains the phrases “Fartes of Portingale” and “ferte of Portugall,” defined as “a ball of light pastry,” but “to have ‘portugall farts’ as well is good,” he said. One letter, from 1567, about a headstrong youth uses the term “white lie,” pre-dating the O.E.D.’s earliest record of the phrase by nearly two centuries.

Another great use of the internet!


  1. I love it. I went and translated five pages because of this post, all beautiful examples of typical old “remedies” that would have my more New Agey friends nearly paralysed with glee and rushing off to find out what “oil of roses” and “clouegilliflowr” are. I happen to have been interested in herbalism years ago and was able to decipher jargon like “electuary” and “alembick”. Fun stuff.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Very interesting, speedwell. Here are some French equivalents, although their modern English ones may be different:

    – oil of roses : l’attar de roses (from Arabic, I suppose, or perhaps Persian)

    – clouegilliflowr (now plain clove) : le clou de girofle

    French le clou = ‘nail’ (used with a hammer).
    The plant part actually looks somehat like a nail and gets stuck into a food like a nail.

    But a clove of garlic is not ‘un clou’, it is une gousse (d’ail) (at least in France).

  3. Eli Nelson says

    It’s very fun! Of course, some people in the past had bad handwriting, same as today, but surprisingly I came across one page that was extremely legible. The language hasn’t really changed that much in the past 500 years–or at least, the way people spell words hasn’t changed that much.

  4. Eli Nelson says
  5. According to Wikipedia, “rose oil” is also known as rose otto, attar of rose, attar of roses or rose essence. I’d only ever heard of attar of roses.

  6. I did a page of Mrs. Corlyon. I’d rather read that handwriting than the handwriting of many an engineer I’ve worked for. I tried my hand at making rose-impregnated salve once before–it’s not so easy. (I noticed that in my post above I wrote “translated” instead of “transcribed”; blame goofing off at work while on a conference call.)

  7. Trond Engen says

    blame goofing off at work while on a conference fall.

    Don’t we all?


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