This is, of course, what Kate loses at the end of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

No, no, no, look again! There is that a in there! You see that it makes the heart of the word like an incomplete raging. And in the pronunciation it not only adds an unstressed vowel (compared with virginity) but changes the quality of the first vowel, so that it is no longer a syllabic /r/ (or something near) but becomes an actual /I/ as in spirit.

Spirit, of course, is something Kate has in abundance in that play. She may be a virgin, but she is not blushing or modest. Virgin comes from Latin virgo, probably related to virga “branch”, but Kate’s not a tender shoot – nope, she’s a real switch, a stick to whip with. But take a little piece of wood and dip it in the right solution and you will get a match, which can really ignite something – and Kate meets her match, and the sparks do indeed fly.

Kate, you see, is a virago quite surely – virago meaning a bold woman: in its approbative sense, a warrior woman, but in its negative sense a termagant, a shrew. A woman who does not behave as was thought womanly at the time the word came about (and, honestly, ideas about what is appropriately feminine behaviour do persist today). And a word for the quality of being a virago – a rare word, to be sure, but it’s in Oxford – is viraginity. It’s a nice enough word in itself; the a adds balance, putting the g in the middle, and the v pairs with the y to counterpoise the verticals in the middle. And the whole thing stays at the tip of your tongue – while virago bounces to the back and so on down.

But whence virago? Has it to do with vinegar? No. With rage, with vigour? No. And don’t even ask about that popular drug that many men like to use (why would I want to snag on spam filters?). Nor is it the name of a Shakespearean character. It comes, in fact, from vir, “man”; it means a woman who is manlike. It was also used in early English translations of the Bible for the name Adam gave Eve: “And Adam seide… This schal be clepid virago, for she is takun of man.” No branch here; we’re talking about a rib.

Well, fair enough: Petruchio takes quite a bit of ribbing – and beating – from Kate in the course of the play. But the two are really just two sides of a coin, made for each other… she may seem to surrender, but watch if he does not come under her thumb in the long run. Does she really lose her viraginity, or does she put it in trust in order to gain interest – and leverage?

One response to “viraginity

  1. Ooh! What a great word.

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