Wordy Wednesday – “Skim milk”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a very popular play this summer! It’s being produced for CanStage’s Dream in High Park, as well as several other companies in and around the GTA. (Including a Brampton production that one of our very own interns is a part of!) So why not a Shakespeare invented word featured first in that very play?

When we’re first introduced to Puck, the king of the Fairies’  henchman,  a Fairy describes to us the mischief he causes…

Fairy:

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,

Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite

Call’d Robin Goodfellow: are not you he

That frights the maidens of the villagery;

Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern

And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;

And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;

Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?

Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,

You do their work, and they shall have good luck:

Are not you he?

Here we see “skim milk” used for the first time. According to the OED, it is defined as…
“Milk with the cream skimmed off or otherwise removed. Also in fig. context.”

But as is noted at the end of the definition, Shakespeare more often used it metaphorically. First here in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595 or ’96, according to the OED) describing Puck as dividing himself and popping up unexpectedly to fright ladies. (And if you’re familiar with the 1999 film version you might remember that Puck – Stanley Tucci – vanishes and re-appears just like this shortly after this description.)

Shakespeare uses it again in Henry IV, Part I (Act II, Scene iii) with Hotspur. Although here he uses it to talk about York’s betrayal (dividing his loyalties like cream from milk/skim milk).

It’s a clever metaphor, but not one I see slipping back into our vocabulary too easily. Try to use dairy products to describe a friend’s betrayal nowadays and you’re sure to get a funny look.

Comments ( 1 )
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