this mortal coil

 

 

MEANING

 

the troubles and activities of this mortal life

 

 

ORIGIN

 

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) thus defined the noun coil:

Tumult; turmoil; bustle; stir; hurry; confusion.

This obsolete noun is probably from Old French acueil (Modern French accueil), meaning reception, encounter. Nearly all the earliest English attestations are such a coil and what a coil, although this is not necessary in accounting for the loss of the initial a-, which also occurred in the obsolete English noun cater (the origin and synonym of caterer), from Middle English catour, aphetic form of acatour.

The French noun is from the verb acueillir (Modern French accueillir), which had varied and numerous meanings, such as to gather, to receive and to pursue. It is based on Latin colligere, to gather together, which is the origin of the English verb to coil.

In The faerie queene (1590), the English poet Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599) used to accoil, derived from the French verb, to mean to crowd, throng:

About the caudron many Cookes accoyld
With hookes and ladles, as need did requyre;
The whyles the viaundes in the vessell boyld,
They did about their businesse sweat, and sorely toyld.

 

The noun coil is first attested in Horace his arte of poetrie, pistles, and satyrs Englished (1567), by Thomas Drant (circa1540-1578), poet and Church of England clergyman:

O Ianus, helpe thou on my verse, thou knowes the cruell coyle
In Citie kepte, as éeke [= also] the ease of quiet countrie soyle.

Thomas Drant also wrote:

Againe, thinckes thou that I at Rome my vearses can indyte
Mongst so much toyle, and such a coyle, suche soking carke*, and spyte.

(* Here, the noun cark, related to charge, means that which burdens the spirit.)


This mortal coil is from The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Prince Hamlet contemplates death and suicide:

(1623 edition)
To be, or not to be, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the minde to suffer
The Slings and Arrowes of outragious Fortune,
Or to take Armes against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to dye, to sleepe
No more; and by a sleepe, to say we end
The Heart ake, and the thousand Naturall shockes
That Flesh is heyre too? ’Tis a consummation
Deuoutly to be wish’d. To dye to sleepe,
To sleepe, perchance to Dreame; I, there’s the rub,
For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,
When we haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile,
Must giue vs pawse.

 

John Dalton (1709-63), English cleric and poet, used the Shakespearean image in Comus, a Mask: (Now adapted to the Stage) As Alter’d from Milton’s Mask (1738):

– First Attendant Spirit:
Declare, on what strange Errand bent,
Thou visitest this Clime, to me assign’d,
So far remote from thy appointed Sphere?
– Second Attendant Spirit:
On no appointed Task thou see’st me now:
But as returning from Elysian Bowers
(Whither from mortal Coil a Soul I wasted).

The English author William Whitehead (1715-85) became Poet Laureate in 1757. He too used the image in the pompous Ode for his Majesty’s Birth-Day, June 4, 1761, performed at the Court and published in The Ipswich Journal of 6th June; the following is from the antistrophe:

O sacred Truth in Emblem dress’t!—
Again the Muses sing,
Again in Britain’s blooming King
Alcides stands confess’d [= Heracles is revealed];
By Temperance nurs’d, and early taught
To shun the smooth fallacious Draught
Which sparkles high in Circe’s Bowl:
To tame each Hydra of the Soul,
Each lurking Pest, which mocks its Birth,
And ties the Spirit down to Earth
Immers’d in mortal Coil:
His Choice was that severer Road
Which leads to Virtue’s calm Abode,
And well repays the Toil.

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