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Ye Olde Wordes

What better way to begin our #WordNerd series than with Ye? We’ll be profiling words that make our work sound ‘Shakespeare-y’, and Bill uses ye more than 300 times. When we say ‘Shakespeare-y’, we really mean early modern, the time roughly between 1500-1700. English went through some massive changes in that time, and Shakespeare’s works show us those changes in progress. If you see ye and think you, then ye are certainly correct, in a number of ways. Ye may not have known, though, that the ‘Ye’ in all of those ‘Ye Olde’ shop signs actually means ‘The’, as in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.

Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Sign

What we write as the letter ‘y’ gradually took the place of an Old English character called ‘thorn’ (þ), and eventually ‘th’ took over for that. Those funny shoppe names are the longest lasting versions of this usage of ye, though Shakespeare might giggle to hear people pronouncing them as we do. Most of the time, ye means you in early modern English. Well before Shakespeare’s time, it could be used in place of thou to make a sentence more formal. You and ye were considered fancier, while thou was for your mates or someone beneath you (we’ll get to thou and thine in a later post). Words may be sticky, but they aren’t made of stone. By the time Shakespeare was writing, the difference between thou and you was disappearing fast, which meant ye became more versatile. It was often used for a group of people, rather like y’all is today, as in the familiar Town Crier call, ‘Here ye, hear ye! That said, it could also be used for just one person, as when Henry V shouts ‘Peace, ye fat-guts!’ at Falstaff. Not so formal there. We’ll return soon for the next #WordNerd installment. If you want to suggest a word for future posts, email us here, or contact us on Facebook or Twitter.


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