Shakespeare’s Bluff

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could one of these be a wanny?

A couple of weeks ago I ran a quiz night for the friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust which was based on the TV quiz show ‘call my bluff’. In this popular show celebrity teams would compete to befuddle each other with obscure words for the English language. Each team would offer a number of different definitions of a word and the opposing team had to geuss which was the real definition and which were just ‘calling their bluff.’ The best players had a good imagination, a persuasive delivery, a sense of humour and a good poker face.

Many of Shakespeare’s words are obscure to the modern reader so I thought it would be fun to play the game using his words as a starting point. Just to give you all a flavour of the game I thought I would test you with a word here and see if I can call your bluff.

The word is Wanny – but what does it mean? Here follow three definitions, but only one is right, can you guess which it is?

  1. Wanny meant to whine, complain, fuss. Presumably the word was a linguistic conflation of whine (the noise a human makes when it fusses) and whinny (the noise a horse makes when unsettled). Often used by parents of fussy children but could be used from one adult to another (as Shakespeare uses it) for additional patronizing overtones. An example of the use might be, Anne Hathaway to her son Hamnet, “Hamnet, your father does not like it when you wanny so”
  2. A wanny was a small fish. wannys were cheap and not very popular, but none the less remained a staple of poorer Tudor homes in areas where the fish could be obtained. Shakespeare would have been familiar with the wanny in both Stratford and London, and probably consumed it as a boy when his family were in financial trouble. An example of it’s use might be, Young Shakespeare to his Mother Mary, “Mother must we have wanny pie again!?”
  3. Wanny meant pale and palid. A description which arose from the common word (still in use today) wan, meaning without colour. Someone who was not well might be described as looking wanny and it was the perfect description of someone pale from fright. An example might be, young Shakespeare to his betrothed Anne Hathaway “Anne, your rosy cheeks are wanny with woe, is there something you would like to tell me?

But which is the right definition? The correct answer will be posted on our facebook page tomorrow at and will be added to this blog post on Wednesday next week.

Did I call your bluff?


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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Glad you enjoyed it. I followed David Crystal in my assignment of accurate definitions using his excellent book, “Shakespeare’s words” – although he too notes that the folio renders it as ‘Many’. At any rate a word which you would encounter reading some editions of Shakespeare’s plays. It is interesting how hard it actually is to be certain that any word is ‘demonstrably Shakespearean’ ^liz

  • Duncan

    “Wanny” in R&J 4.1 appears to be a suggested emendation for “many” (Q2,Q3,F) and “paly” (Q4) and not demonstrably a Shakespearean usage.

    Good game though!

  • The correct answer will be posted on Facebook in just a moment. And I will post the answer on the blog here next week ^liz

  • So are we actually supposed to guess, or just wait for the answer? I’ll risk a bold C…

  • love this, Liz, think it could be a new game for christmas day!

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