Friday, February 6, 2009


vizard [VIZ-urd]
n. a mask; disguise.

[Derives from visor -- the front part of a helmet]

I came across vizards in Shakespeare. A vizard in the Bard's time, though less common even then, was used synonymously with mask. Vizard of course is related to visor. To this day, if we were to describe the bill on the front of a knight's helmet, we would call it a visor, just as we call a topless baseball hat a visor, named for its bill.

The word mask came to English from Spanish. In Spanish the word for mask is máscara. Literally, that means more (más) face (cara). The other two common English words which derive from the Spanish máscara are mascara ("eye make-up") and masquerade ("a party, dance, etc. of people wearing masks"). While masquerade balls were at their zenith in Shakespeare's time, that word never appears in his plays, though it had entered English (by way of French) in 1597, 19 years before he died (and 7 years before Edward de Vere, thought by many to be the author of the plays, died).

Here are a few vizard occurences in Shakespeare:

From Henry IV, Poins is plotting in an apartment in London with the Prince of Wales and Falstaff:
Tut! our horses they shall not see: I'll tie them in the wood; our vizards we will change after we leave them: and, sirrah, I have cases of buckram for the nonce, to immask our noted outward garments.

The protagonist Macbeth in Macbeth, replying to some cheerful words from Lady Macbeth after he laments his condition in life:
So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you: Let your remembrance apply to Banquo; Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue: Unsafe the while, that we Must lave our honours in these flattering streams, And make our faces vizards to our hearts, Disguising what they are.

Ford, a gentleman in The Merry Wives of Windsor, is talking with his wife, and another woman named Mrs. Page and a Welsh parson named Evans. Mrs. Page suggests that their children should be dressed in costumes to represent "urchins, ouphes, and fairies, green and white." Evans says he will teach them how to act out their parts. Ford replies:
That will be excellent. I'll go and buy them vizards.

An ouphe according to The Works of William Shakespeare by J. Payne Collier (1844) is an oaf. "(Ouphe) is variously spelt in our old writers ofe, auf, and ophe, as well as ouphe. The modern orthography is oaf, and it generally means a dolt or a blockhead."

As I noted above, Shakespeare employed the word mask more often than he did vizard, to mean the same thing. Mask, of course, can be a verb or a noun. Here's an example of Longaville in Love's Labour's Lost using mask and vizard interchangeably:
You have a double tongue within your mask, And would afford my speechless vizard half.

Here is Brutus in Julius Caesar employing mask as a verb:
O, then by day Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough To mask thy monstrous visage?

Although vizard has faded from our contemporary vocabulary, Vizard lives on as a surname. There are 181 Vizards with listed phone numbers across the country. In New Orleans, there is a well known restaurateur/chef named Kevin Vizard. His restaurant, appropriately, is called Vizard's. Mask, too, is a surname. In California alone, there are 133 Masks with listed numbers. There are 205 people in the U.S. listed with the last name Mascara.

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