Sunday, September 11, 2011


Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare Santa Cruz, 2011
To be perfectly honest, I thought this was going to be a kind of easy post.  I saw "The Comedy of Errors"  at Shakespeare Santa Cruz the weekend before this one, and got from the program notes that "error" had something to do with wandering. I thought that was pretty cool, given the wandering, questing nature of the play and thought I'd  be able to report and comment on that.

But closer inspection shows that the program notes only say that the play may well be a pun on the Latin word errare, to wander. Which leaves me as much in the dark as ever. If error doesn't come from errare, where does it come from?


I'm a bit stuck on this one. 'Error' does apparently come from the Old French error, which meant mistake, flaw, defect and, interestingly, heresy. It derived from the Latin erro 'to wander, stray or rove'. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that most Indoeuropean languages take their word for error from the sense of wandering or straying, but that the Irish word for error is dearmad, which comes  from dermat, "a forgetting". An interesting difference.

Another interesting thing is that the Germanic languages seem to have taken that original PIE base *ers- and turned it into words like ierre (Old English) and ire (Old Frisian) and irre (Old High German), all of which have at least one meaning of "angry". The Online Etymological Dictionary has it that this comes from the Germanic notion of anger as "straying" from normal composure. Hmm.

Now none of this is too confusing, but when you think, as I did, that the word 'errant' must come from the same sense, you get your comeuppance fast. Here I was thinking of all those lovely knights errant, wandering around on what I supposed were their knightly errands. But it seems that errant in English comes from the fusion of two words in old French, both stemming from different forms of errer, one having to do with wandering and the other with, well, erring. In English, most of the wandering meaning stuck with 'errant' and much of the second meaning went with the word 'arrant'.

I didn't even think I knew the word 'arrant' until I stepped away from this post for a bit and realized that I did of course know the phrase 'arrant knave'. What's fascinating is that although an arrant knave and a knight errant sound very different to our ears now, in fact, since knight originally comes from Old English cniht "boy, youth, servant", and knave originally comes from Old English cnafa, "boy, servant", you have quite a doubling over and entwining of wandering, mistaken identities.

In fact,what you have is The Comedy of Errors.


  1. Somehow the word "comedy" took my attention here.

    "Faire" or "jouer la comédie" is intrinsic to acting, as this link reveals:

    Replace "comedie" with "erreur" in the link and the sense that error means to mislead seems intrinsic to the play's title.

    It certainly is a frantic mess of subplots and well worth seeing.

  2. Thanks for the link. I had thought about comedy a bit too in this, but wasn't really willing to go back to the Greek goat masks.

    I wasn't all that enthusiastic about going to this play this year, figuring I had seen it a time or two before, but it was a wonderful production. It was also interesting because this year the intern's play was The Menaechmi by Plautus, which was one of Shakespeares sources. It was also very well done and it was interesting to see the Roman play first and then see how Shakespeare elaborated on it.