Shakespeare · Word of the week

Word of the week: o’er

“O’er” is defined simply enough on this page from Macmillan Dictionaries as “a word meaning over, used in poetry” (adverb, preposition, literary). It came to mind at a funeral mass I attended earlier today. Some of the hymns contained words with apostrophes to make them fit in with the melody, words like spread’st, Heav’n and wand’rer. I was expecting to see “o’er” too but it wasn’t in any of the hymns selected. Offhand I couldn’t think of any specific hymns that do contain it but I remember discussing it with my children a few years ago.

At different times they both sang with children’s choirs. My daughter was seven when she joined the choir and there were many unfamiliar words in the hymns they sang. Sometimes I would transcribe them so that they’d be easier to read, and we could talk through what the more obscure words meant. Any poetic use of an apostrophe would need an explanation, and the word “o’er” prompted a memory of something I heard in the 1980s. A judge in a poetry competition was explaining that there was no need for anyone to use “o’er” in modern poetry. He felt so strongly about it, he said, that when he encountered the word in a poem that he was judging he would screw up the sheet of paper on which it was written and, in his words, “throw it o’er my shoulder and into the wastepaper basket”.

It does appear in the opening lines of one of the most famous of English poems, “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth, which was also the subject of a question on “University Challenge” earlier tonight.The question was: what is the first verb used in the poem? The answer: wandered, or, more accurately, “wander’d”, according to the book that I have just propped open next to my laptop, “The Nation’s Favourite Poems”, a BBC book published in 1996. “Daffodils” made it to #5 in the list. “If” (Rudyard Kipling) was at #1 and numbers 2 to 4 were, respectively “The Lady of Shalott” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson), “The Listeners” (Walter de la Mare) and “Not Waving But Drowning” (Stevie Smith).

The opening two lines, including the word “o’er”, are: “I wander’d lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills”.

I took a look at the online concordance that I linked to last year in this piece to see how many times Shakespeare used the word but haven’t found a successful way to search just for “o’er”. Instead I searched through a word-processed copy of “Hamlet” and found that it appears 34 times in that play alone, on its own and in words like o’erwhelm, o’ergrowth, o’ertook and o’erhasty (when Gertrude talks about her “o’erhasty marriage” to Claudius). It appears in Hamlet’s dying words, which feels like an appropriate way to end this piece:

O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.



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