The Grammarphobia Blog

Home economics in “Hamlet”

Q: Your blog post on “spendthrift” cited Shakespeare’s use of “thrift” to mean wealth. That reminded me of another time Shakespeare used the word. In Hamlet, when Horatio agrees that the queen’s marriage “followed hard upon” the king’s funeral, Hamlet replies: “Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” That sounds to me like the more modern definition of “thrift.” Did the word have both meanings at the time?

A: Yes, “thrift” could mean, among other things, either wealth or frugality in Elizabethan times, although the use of the word for household economy was relatively new when Shakespeare wrote those sarcastic lines.

The Oxford English Dictionary has this definition of “thrift” in the sense you mention: “Economical management, economy; sparing use or careful expenditure of means; frugality, saving; euphemistically, parsimony, niggardliness (obs.).”

The OED’s first citation for this meaning, from 1553, says “foode is never founde to bee so pleasaunte” as when “thrift hathe pincht afore.” In other words, you appreciate food more when you have to economize and don’t have enough of it.

The dictionary has published references from the early 14th century to the late 19th century for “thrift” used in the sense of wealth, savings, or earnings, though it says this usage is now considered archaic.

Hamlet was probably written between 1599 and 1601, when both meanings of “thrift” were there for Shakespeare to use. And use them, as you point out, he did.

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