your hawks and your heronshaws
we sort them with ease, as
each from the other we know

ask weather vane roosters
where handsaws are from
but wait ’til the Southerlies blow

your foes are not friends
and their luck will not tend
to the button on fortune’s wool cap

in nutshells we’re found
father-uncles are bound
to sully our dreams when we nap

but no need to be sad
since nothing is bad but
for thinking, it makes it that way

and the wind may decide
to take sanity’s side or
we’re dead by the end of the play

“The Heron. Common Heron, Heronsewgh, or Heronshaw. (Ardea cinerea, Lath.—Héron cendré, Temm.)” wood engraving by Thomas Bewick in his History of British Birds, volume 2, 1804

The contention that Shakespeare’s use of handsaw in the line “I know a hawk from a handsaw” holds that handsaw is a corruption of the old English heronshaw (heron) and that he is in fact referring to birds. Others counter that hawk is in fact the name of a tool used in construction and that he was indeed talking about tradesmen’s tools and not birds. This second idea relates back to birds though, in that the hawk is a plasterer’s wooden palette from which the wet material is scraped as it is applied to a surface and is named so for the fact that the plasterer stands and holds it much like a falconer. All this and we haven’t even gotten into what this has to do with the direction of the wind.

A lively debate, with convincing arguments on all sides, unfolds in the comment thread here at The Word Detective.

* last line was changed ~24 hours after posting from: we’re all dead by the end of the day – to improve the intended meaning and tighten up the cadence.

One thought on “Heronshaw

  1. Good to see the Heron reproduced here- I print a copy of this wood engraving at cherryburn museum and birthplace of Thomas Bewick in Northumberland, enjoyed your post thank you

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