Othello Vocabulary Words

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

Modern readers may often encounter unfamiliar words or unfamiliar meanings of words in many of Shakespeare's plays. In this lesson, we will look at some vocabulary words from ''Othello''.

Shakespeare's Language is Difficult

Okay, okay. Let's just get this out in the open. Shakespeare's language is hard to understand. There is no denying that. The good thing is that the more time you spend reading Shakespeare, the easier it gets to understand what the heck he is talking about.

There are two things that make Shakespeare's vocabulary difficult:

  1. He uses words in a way that we are not used to. For example, he might use the word appetite when referring to sexual desire, while most current English speakers relate the word to food. So when you read Othello, be one the lookout for how certain vocabulary words can have multiple meanings.
  2. We may be completely unfamiliar with some of the words because we do not see them in modern language. These words we may simply have to look up.

Let's break down a few vocabulary words from Othello to help us better understand this great Shakespearean work.


One of the most important words from Othello is 'Moor'. Currently, the word 'Moor' refers to people of Arab descent who live in North Africa. In Shakespeare's time, the word was used more broadly and was equivalent to the phrase 'person of color.'

Othello, the main character of the play, is referred to as black as well as 'the Moor'. The issue of Othello's race is one of the most discussed and most fascinating aspects of the play. The term 'Moor' is used both affectionately and derogatorily throughout the play.


Another important word in Othello that you may not be familiar with is 'cuckold'. This term is used many times in the play, and it is also important because the play is about cuckolding. A cuckold is a man whose wife has had sex with another man. The word is usually used in an insulting way.

Being a cuckold is embarrassing for many reasons. In Shakespeare's time, if you were cuckolded, it implied that you were a foolish man who was easily deceived and who could not 'control his woman.' Othello's jealous rage is directly related to the worry that his wife was cheating on him. The word can be used as a verb or a noun. A person can be a cuckold or can be cuckolded.


While some words may be completely unfamiliar to readers, there are other words we do know that are used in unfamiliar ways. One example of this in Othello is the word 'tongue'. While we usually think of the word as simply referring to the part of our body inside our mouths, in Othello the word 'tongue' refers to language itself.

For example, in Act 1, scene 1, Othello is explaining that he has nothing to fear from his wife's father. Othello explains 'My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints.' In other words, Othello is saying that his government service will speak louder and be more important than Brabantio's words against him.

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