Prenzie Scamels


CalibanFour hundred years after he wrote them, we still use in everyday speech the many words and phrases Shakespeare coined. He gave us so many, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to list them all here.

But two words he wrote have stopped us dead: prenzie and scamels. What do they mean?

Were they more of his 1,700-plus famous neologisms like accommodation, castigate, frugal, inauspicious, premeditated and sanctimonious?* If so, no one today knows for sure what prenzie and scamels refer to.

Or were they transcription errors? The typesetter or copyist reading from a crabbed, handwritten manuscript and spelling out for the folio something he couldn’t quite understand?

Scamels are something – possibly a sea creature or shore bird – collected for food. It’s a hapax legomenon – a word that only appears once in the entire canon of Shakespeare’s works. In The Tempest, Act II, Sc. II, Caliban says to Trinculo:

I prithee let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pig-nuts,
Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee
To clust’ring filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee
Young scamels from the rock.

Could someone have written but smudged ‘seagull’ and the typesetter not been able to make out the letters correctly? Or written scams – an archaic nickname for limpets? Neither sound very appealling for a meal.

Dr. Metablog has one answer:

…modern scholarship has coalesced around “sea-mell.” It’s now thought (by 90% of those who have studied the question) that Shakespeare knew a manuscript report about a shipwreck called “A true repertory of the wreck and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight, upon and from the islands of the Bermudas…July 15, 1610,” which was not printed until 1625 in Purchas his Pilgrimes. Among the details that Shakespeare found in the “true repertory” was a brief account of a bird called a “sea-meawe”: “a kind of web-footed fowl there is, the bigness of an English plover… [which] hovering in the air made a strange hollow and harsh howling…. Our men found a pretty way to take them, which was by standing on the rocks or sands … whereof the birds would come flocking to that place nearer and nearer.”

Suggesting that Shakespeare knew the details of a report not published until after his death is problematic. Yes, many scholars believe The Tempest was inspired by that tale, but I’m not convinced it was widely in circulation that early.

The Tempest was probably written in 1610-11. The shipwreck of Gates’ story occurred in 1609, on what we now call Bermuda. Gates didn’t return to England, but he and his crew continued to Jamestown on the mainland (Virginia) in 1610. Gates was still in Jamestown in 1611 when a second fleet (Baron De La Warr’s ships) arrived. The Baron returned to England and wrote a short book about the Virginia colony, sending it to his superiors in the Virginia Company, in London, in June, 1611. I still think it’s too late to influence Shakespeare’s play.

Still, sea-mell or seamew (also called the mew gull today) may have been a word he heard on the London docks long before the play.

But aside from the reference to crabs – which might also be crabapples, given that he says the ‘grow’ rather than live – there is nothing else to suggest it’s a creature from the sea or seaside. Limpets, on the other hand, grow on rocks. Dr. Metablog concludes hopefully:

The Tempest is filled with words compounded of the prefix “sea” and a second element: sea-nymphs, sea-sorrow, sea-change, sea-swallowed, sea-marge. Why would Shakespeare not have been enchanted by the fortuitous “seamell?

Prenzie presents similar problems. In How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche suggests a conflation of finicky and princely. I’m not sure that works in the context of the conversation.

Prenzie appears twice in Measure for Measure, both in Act II, Sc IV, one right after the other:

The prenzie Angelo!
O, ’tis the cunning livery of hell,
The damned’st body to invest and cover
In prenzie guards! Dost thou think, Claudio?
If I would yield him my virginity,
Thou mightst be freed.

Prenzie is often written as ‘princely’ in later editions of the play, and has been so changed since the second folio of 1632. But the first has prenzie. Suggestions for its meaning or the word that might have been misread include precise and princely, and even priestly.

In a paper on the word, Emma Smith discusses the specific nature of the word ‘precise’ in 17th-century England, suggesting an ironic use:

…‘precise’ has a particular resonance in early modern English, meaning ‘strict or scrupulous in religious observance’ and chiefly used of Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I can’t see how precise fits the bill here.

In his Shakespeare Blog, Joel Freidman quotes from the Yale edition of Shakespeare that offers this possibility:

…prenzie is Shakespeare’s translation of the now obsolete Italian word for prince (prenze) and the prenzie guards means therefore ‘prince-robes’, clothes with rich trimming. The explanation is not very convincing.

Freidman offers what, to me, is a better suggestion because the word is apparently not meant as a compliment in the text:

The Oxford English Dictionary:
Pensy, a. Now Scot. and dial. Giving oneself airs, self-conceited.
Dictionary of the Scots Language:
Conceited, overweening, ‘stuck-up’…
What, however, is strikingly significant is that the word ‘pensy’ is used in respect to clothing:
…of things, esp. clothes: neat, well-care-for, smart…

One of the debates is whether or how much Shakespeare travelled outside his small area of England (Stratford-London). Some scholars believe he went on a mission to Scotland in 1599, which would explain his use of Scots words. And, of course, Macbeth is set in Scotland and has a sprinkling of other Scots words in it. One of those words is used to describe the ‘witches’ – weird – which actually meant fate, not witch. So Shakespeare knew some Scots, which makes Friedman’s suggestion more compelling.

Also, the word pensy was still in use in northern English dialects in the late 19th century, but meaning demure and precise.

In their otherwise superb book, Shakespeare’s Words, David and Ben Crystal suggest scamel is a type of bird or fish, but they overlook prenzie entirely (nor does it appear on their website). In fact, on their website they prefer to use precise in the first reference to prenzie in MFM, and precious for the second. Again, I don’t feel these choices quite fit the context.

I’m not sure anyone has solved the mystery for certain, although I’m willing to accept the more scornful pensie as a viable suggestion. But seagull still appeals more to me than sea-mell as the more commonly used and heard word.


* One day I will get myself a T-shirt that says “I Grok Neologisms.”

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  1. I received the following lengthy comment by email from someone who wished to remain anonymous:

    As a follow-up to your recent blog…

    Within a year and a half following the event at least four accounts were written of the Sea Venture shipwreck on Bermuda in 1609. William Strachey, a passenger on the Sea Venture and subsequently the Secretary of the Virginia colony, wrote a lengthy and eloquent eye witness account. A copy of an apparent first draft of this account was discovered in Bermuda in 1983. Strachey’s final draft of the ‘True Reportory’ was dated July 15, 1610, about 5 weeks after Baron De La Warr and his contingent had arrived in Jamestown, Virginia on June 10, 1610 (not 1611 as you say in your blog). See,_3rd_Baron_De_La_Warr .

    Sir George Somers, the Admiral of the fleet of which the Sea Venture was the flagship, wrote a brief first hand account dated June 15, 1610.

    Silvester Jourdains, another passenger on the Sea Venture, also wrote an eye witness account which was dedicated on October 13, 1610 and published shortly thereafter.

    Finally, an official Virginia Company publication, A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colony in Virginia, was registered with the Stationers Company in London on November 8, 1610 by four members of the company council, none of whom were eyewitnesses. It was published shortly afterward.

    Baron De La Warr’s brief account regarding the Virginia colony dated June 25, 2011 (to which you refer in your blog) says nothing about the Sea Venture shipwreck.

    Contrary to what you say in your blog, Sir Thomas Gates actually returned to England in 1610, setting sail from the Virginia colony on July 20, 1610 and arriving in London in September of that year. Obviously, Strachey’s True Reportory manuscript would have been aboard Gates’ ship. Gates returned to the colony for the second time in August of 2011. See .

    We know that the news and written accounts of the Sea Venture/Bermuda shipwreck and the amazing survival of her passengers and crew reached England in September, 1610. Strachey had many friends and acquaintances in the London theatre of the day. He even had a 1/6th interest in the Blackfriars Theatre where the Tempest was performed beginning in 1612. See and .

    The first performance of The Tempest on record was at court on November 1, 1611. This would have allowed Shakespeare more than a year to read the Sea Venture/Bermuda narratives and write the play.

    For a comprehensive summary of the indications that Shakespeare, in writing The Tempest, had read and made extensive use of the written accounts of the Sea Venture/Bermuda narratives (especially Strachey’s True Reportory) which also addresses other issues, see David Kathman’s 1996 article Dating The Tempest at . See also Tom Reedy’s commentary at .

    As regards ‘scamels’, I think Dr. Metablog is probably right when he says:

    “”Sea-meawes” (a variant of seamell) was the word that Shakespeare encountered in the manuscript letter. I believe that he read the second letter of sea-meawe not as an “e” but as a “c”, or, alternatively, Shakespeare’s own ms “e” was misread as a “c” by Ralph Crane, the scrivener who prepared a fair copy of Shakespeare’s holograph for publication — or perhaps even the compositor who was assigned to set the Folio page A5v misread Crane’s fair copy. A “scamel,” I’m .9 positive, is a seabird hunted from a rock; it’s a sea-mew or sea-mell.”

    The full text of Strachey’s True Reportory description of the bird that the stranded Sea Venture passengers and crew caught and ate in Bermuda, reads as follows:
    “A kind of web-footed fowl there is, of the bigness of an English green plover or sea mew, which all the summer we saw not, and in the darkest nights of November and December (for in the night they only feed) they would come forth, but not fly far from home, and hovering in the air and over the sea, made a strange hollo and harsh howling. Their color is inclining to russet, with white bellies, as are likewise the long feathers of their wings russet and white. These gather themselves together and breed in those islands, which are high and so far alone into the sea that the wild hogs cannot swim over them, and there in the ground they have their burrows, like conies in a warren and so wrought in the loose mold, though not so deep. Which birds, with a light bough in a dark night (as in our lowbelling), we caught. I have been at the taking of three hundred in an hour, and we might have laden our boats. Our men found a pretty way to take them, which was by standing on the rocks or sands by the seaside and holloing, laughing, and making the strangest outcry that possibly they could. With the noise whereof the birds would come flocking to that place and settle upon the very arms and head of him that so cried, and still creep nearer and nearer, answering the noise themselves; by which our men would weigh them with their hand, and which weighed heaviest they took for the best and let the others alone. And so our men would take twenty dozen in two hours of the chiefest of them; and they were a good and well-relished fowl, fat and full as a partridge. In January we had great store of their eggs, which are as great as an hen’s egg and so fashioned and white shelled, and have no difference in yolk nor white from an hen’s egg. There are thousands of these birds and two or three islands full of their burrows, whither at any time (in two hours warning) we could send our cockboat and bring home as many as would serve the whole company. Which birds for their blindness (for they see weakly in the day) and for their cry and hooting we called the sea owl. They will bite cruelly with their crooked bills.”

    Note that Strachey says that the bird in question is “of the bigness of an English green plover or sea mew”, he does not say that it actually was a sea mew (also called sea-mell or mew gull). What Shakespeare could not have known in reading the True Reportory in 1610-11, was that the bird that Strachey was describing was not actually a gull, but was in fact a petrel, the Bermuda cahow (Bermuda’s national bird), which subsequently narrowly avoided extinction. See for instance (paragraph referring to 1609, July 28).

    I can tell you from personal knowledge that Bermudians are very proud of their early history and the inspirational relationship between the Sea Venture shipwreck and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
    Incidentally, in those days, manuscripts such as Strachey’s True Reportary didn’t have to be published to be widely circulated and read by interested persons. They were often transcribed into several copies by professional scribes or scriveners like Ralph Crane who is reputed to have transcribed several of Shakespeare’s plays, including The Tempest.

    Again, for parallels between Strachey’s True Reportory and The Tempest, I suggest you read David Kathman’s article Dating The Tempest at .

    There is a theory that the Virginia Company deliberately forestalled the publishing of Strachey’s True Reportory manuscript after it arrived in London in September of 1610 because it contained descriptions of happenings and issues in Bermuda and in the Virginia colony (e.g. the problems that arose between Sir George Somers and Sir Thomas Gates) that would have reflected negatively on the Company’s colonization efforts at a time when the Company was trying to raise additional funding.

  2. Pingback: Found in translation – Scripturient

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