Like quills upon the fretful porpentine. That phrase just makes the modern reader stop and wonder. What, you ask yourself, is a porpentine? And why is it fretful?
We never learn, although later interpreters would knowingly tell us a porpentine is a porcupine in today’s argot. Porcupine itself dervices from the Old or Middle French term, “porc espin” or spined pig. Which it isn’t – it’s a rodent. *
It’s an old word, encountered earlier as “purpentine” in 1589, but hardly a common word in any spelling after that, at least not in drama.**
Shakespeare wrote it as porpentine in 1602. One seldom encounters the word between his Hamlet and the middle of the 20th century, when it reappears in The Amazing Vacation, a children’s fantasy novel written in 1956 by Dan Wickenden. It also appears in P. G. Wodehouse’s 1960 novel about Bertie Wooster, Jeeves in the Offing.***
Today, of course, the word porpentine is frequently paired with the adjective fretful on may online sites and blogs. In more common use is the phrase “hair stand on end,” penned in the same verse of Hamlet. Phrases.org.uk tells us of that:
The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656.
Horripilation. Love that word. We owe a lot to Shakespeare and the number of phrases of his we still write and speak today is truly astounding.
The Australian News commented on the longevity of Shakespearean phrases more than 400 years later:
Then there is the English language. The debt it owes to Shakespeare (and the slightly later King James Version of the Bible) is incalculable. No English speaker with any pretensions to culture (above that of phone texting or advertising brochures) can avoid using words or expressions that originated with the Bard of Avon. Not bad going for the son of a draper.
Porpentine isn’t one of Shakespeare’s many neologisms, but rather a nonce word: “a linguistic form which a speaker consciously invents or accidentally does on a single occasion.” Or in this situation, a word used rarely (but not singly). Perhaps it’s simply his unique spelling of purpentine.
Shakespeare was, regardless, an unprecedented source of neologisms and nonce words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, some 2,200 words first appear in writing in Shakespeare’s works, and linguist David Crystal says he invented about 1,700 of them. These are aside from the phrases mentioned above.