Much ado about ado

Words about words

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Much ado about nothing

Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection / Wikimedia Commons

The word ado descends from the equivalent in English of the Old Norse word at, a preposition used as an infinitive marker, which is a word or affix attached to the stem of a verb in forming the infinitive of it. Ado initially was a contraction, of which the fuller form was “at do.” The original words still are used in the dialects of Lancashire and Westmorland of Northern England, in which one might say “at eat” instead of the more conventional “to eat.” Hence the word “ado” is a northern English dialect form for “to do,” which was used in various phrases and with time became a noun in general use. In modern English, the infinitive marker is the word to; in modern Norwegian it is the single letter å. By coincidence, the etymology of the letter å as an infinitive marker in Norwegian also goes back in a similar way to the Old Norse word at.

Ado first appeared in print in Kemble’s Diplomatic Code of ca. 1280. More than three centuries later, it was made popular by William Shakespeare, who included it in the title of a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, believed to have been written in 1598-1599 and included in the First Folio published in 1623. The wording of the title reflects the spoken language of the day, in which the words noting (then meaning gossip, rumor) and nothing were pronounced nearly alike and consequently often were confused.

The setting of the play is in Messina, a city on the island of Sicily. Benedick, a lord and soldier from Padua, a city in northern Italy, and Beatrice, a niece of Leonato, the governor of Messina, are in love but are unsuccessful in keeping their affair secret. Claudio, a count from Florence and a friend of Benedick, has been tricked into rejecting Leonato’s daughter Hero at the altar, on the false belief that she has been unfaithful. Benedick and Beatrice conspire to set matters straight, and (spoiler alert!) in the end the two couples are happily married.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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