The Grammarphobia Blog

A hamlet by any other name

Q: Did the word “hamlet” mean a town in Shakespeare’s day?

A: The noun “hamlet” referred to a small village in Elizabethan times. But that sense of the word probably had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s naming of the title character in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

English adopted “hamlet” in the 1300s from Old French, where hamelet was a diminutive of hamel (village), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers notes that hamel itself was a diminutive of ham, a word for home in many old Germanic languages, including Old English. (No, it’s not related to the cut of meat.)

Interestingly, the Old English sense of ham as home survives in such place names as Birmingham and Nottingham, where the term originally referred to a manor.

The two earliest examples of “hamlet” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng. Here’s one citation: “He died at a hamelette, men calle it Burgh bisandaes.”

And here’s an example written in Shakespeare’s day (from The View of Fraunce, 1604, by the travel writer Robert Dallington): “One hundred thirtie two thousand of Parish Churches, Hamlets, and Villages of all sorts.”

As for the title character of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, scholars believe it’s ultimately derived from a legend in Gesta Danorum, a history of the Danes composed in Latin around 1200 AD by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus.

The protagonist of the legend is Amleth, whose father and uncle are joint rulers of Jutland, the peninsula that forms the mainland portion of Denmark.

In Saxo’s tale, Amleth’s father is killed by his uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother. Amleth feigns madness to keep from being murdered by his uncle, but he eventually avenges his father’s killing and becomes king of the Jutes.

Saxo’s Latin version of Hamlet was printed in Paris in 1514. François de Belleforest translated it into French in 1570 as part of his collection Histoires Tragiques. Both works were available when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1600.

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