Recently, I was playing a word game where you are given a list of clues and you have to come up with the appropriate word, using provided groups of letters. I got rather confused when the clue was something like "shackle with chains" and fetter was not the answer. After putting in the rest of the words, I was able to figure out that the word they were looking for was enfetter. So I looked that up in the Oxford Dictionaries:






Restrain (someone) as if with shackles.

‘his soul is so enfettered to her love’

and then compared it to fetter:





  1. Restrain with chains or manacles, typically around the ankles.

    ‘the Supervisor tossed a key to the old slave to unlock the chain that fettered the prisoners together’

    1.1 Confine or restrict (someone)

    ‘he was not fettered by tradition’


Old English feter, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch veter ‘a lace’, from an Indo-European root shared by foot.

There was no origin listed for enfetter so I turned to the Online Etymology Dictionary where I found the etymology for fetter but not enfetter:


fetter (n.)

Old English fetor "chain or shackle by which a person or animal is bound by the feet," figuratively "check, restraint," from Proto-Germanic *fetero (source also of Old Saxon feteros (plural), Middle Dutch veter "fetter," in modern Dutch "lace, string," Old High German fezzera, Old Norse fiöturr, Swedish fjätter "fetter"), from PIE root *ped- "foot." The generalized sense of "anything that shackles" had evolved in Old English. Related Fetters.

fetter (v.)

c. 1300, from Old English gefetrian, from the noun (see fetter (n.)). Related: Fettered; fettering.

According to Google's ngram tool, enfetter is pretty much unused. Indeed, the first 7 or 8 pages of google search results for the word are all dictionary-related entries (definitions, translations, anagrams, etc.) On page 9, I found the source of the sample sentence the Oxford Dictionaries had: Act II, Scene III of Shakespeare's Othello.

So my question is, is unfetter one of Shakespeare's made-up words that he gets to do because he's Shakespeare and thereafter is only used for word games, or does it have some other history before (or after) Othello?

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    I'd hazard a guess that many if not most of the words trotted out as "neologisms" coined by Shakespeare were already in circulation anyway. We don't have written evidence today for many usages that had at least some currency back then. But in this case we know it was used in Piers Plowman (1362) - which the subscription-only full OED cites in Heo ȝeueþ þe Iayler Gold and grotes..To vn-Fetere þe False. That's their orthography, not mine - I just cut and pasted it from here. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 17:33
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    (I think you're way out on a limb with because he's Shakespeare and thereafter is only used for word games! :) Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 17:34
  • I took an English class once and asked the professor why he would mark my papers down for misspellings since Shakespeare misspelled things all the time and made up all kinds of words. His response: "You're no Shakespeare." (Ouch!) The because he's Shakespeare was meant to apply to gets to do, with the implication being that the rest of us don't have the stature to use it, other than in word games. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 17:53
  • I think that's back-to-front. It's not so much that we've habitually given the benefit of the doubt to Shakespeare because he's a great writer. It more that over many generations and for many different reasons we've reached a consensus that he is a great writer so when we see he's used an "unusual" form we should think long and hard about why he did so, rather than jumping to the conclusion that he simply didn't know how to use English. As to the matter of spelling, I don't think anyone cared much about that in his day (he was legendarily inconsistent in spelling his own name! :) Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 20:05

2 Answers 2


The entry for enfetter in Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) cites Shakespeare's use of the word in Othello:

To ENFETTER v. a. {from fetter.} To bind in fetters ; to enchain. [Cited example:] His soul is so enfetter'd to her love./ That she may make, unmake, do what she list. Sh. Othello.

But the term also appears in a number of books in the period immediately after Shakespeare but before 1650. Here's a brief survey of "shortly after Shakespeare" usage of enfetter and its variants, as culled from searches of Google Books and the Early English Books Online database.

From John Speed, The History of Great Britain under the Conquests of ye Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans (1614):

If Pope Paschall (in the time King Johns grandfather) hauing with much solemnity made some graunts to the Emperour Henry, and confirmed them with an Anathema, with the oathes of thirteene Cardinals, and with religious receyuing of the blessed Sacrament ; yet, because such grants were thought preiudiciall to his See, solemnly disclaimed his owne Act, and such his doing was aproued by a Clergy Councel, as pretended to be done by feare : how much more iustly might King Iohns Successors and his State, by such approbation of their grand Councel, free themselues of those seruitudes wherewith by anothers vniust, forced, vnwarrantable Act, they were supposed to be enfettered?

From George Sandys's traslation of Ovid, Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures (1632):

He's mine! the Nymph exclaim'd : who all vnstript;/ And, as she spake, into the water skipt:/ Hanging about the neck that did resist;/ And, with a mastring force, th' vnwilling kist:/ Now, puts her hand beneath his scornful brest;/ Now every way invading the distrest:/ And wraps-about the subject of her lust,/ Much like a Serpent by an Eagle truss't;/ Which to his head and feet, infettered, clings;/ And wreaths her tayle about his stretcht-out wings.

From Robert Bolton, The Saints Soule-Exalting Humiliation; or Soule-Fatting Fasting (1634):

But the master that thou servest, the Prince of hell, feeds thy soule continually with ranke poison, scourges it with fiery, invenomed Scorpions, (though for a while thy feared and senslesse conscience feele it not) enfetters it in the invisible chaines of darknesse and damnation : and after a while eithout timely repentence, and returne, will locke it up for ever in the dungeon of brimstone and fire.

From John Grant, Gods Deliverance of Man by prayer. And mans thankefulnesse to God in prayses. (1642):

When his wrath is kindled but a little, O blessed are they that in him repose their trust, Psal. 2. 12. accursednesse shall enfetter all others in the chaines of everlasting darknesse. O! my beloved in the Lord; What ever we have been heretofore, be this hence forward to the end of our pilgrimage, and warfare on earth, our mainest care never any more to receave the grace of God in vaine, never turn the same into lasciviousnesse, which Saint Iude fitly calls, the denying of the only Lord God, and our Lord Iesus Christ: ...

From Simonds D'Ewes, The Primitive Practice for Preserving Truth (1645):

All which open affronts, the Popes in this fifteenth age after our blessed Saviours incarnation, endured from these Kings; not because they were more deare to their Subjects then their Predecessors, or the Popes lesse potent then in former times, (for their strength in Italy was more encreased in that age, then in ten fore-going) but indeed it was the light of the Gospel that began about these times to dawn every where, that made way for dispelling those chains of darknesse, with which both Prince and people had in those former ages been enfettered; so as the Pope fearing, lest all should fall from him, as some Germane Princes, Republiques, and Cities had already done, was fain to comply with the French King, to submit to the Emperor, and to court the King of England, by the intercession of foraine Princes for a reconcilement.

As these five results demonstrate enfetter appears in at least five unrelated different books published from 1614 through 1645. Slightly later writers used it as well. For example, from Charles Molloy, De Jure Maritimo Et Navali ; Or, A Treatise of Affairs Maritime and of Commerce (1676/1682 [third edition]):

But in regard Masters might not be tempted to engage the Owners, or infetter them with such sort of obligations, but where there is very apparent cause and necessity, they seldom suffer any to go Skipper or Master but he that hath a share or part in her ; for that if monies or provisions be taken up, he must bear his equal share and proportion with the rest.

So while enfetter may be considerably less common than fetter as a verb and may owe its earliest use to considerations of meter, it is hardly a one-and-done production of Shakespeare's brain.


It appears to be a usage found mainly in Shakespeare’s works as noted in:

Shakespeare's Non-Standard English: A Dictionary of His Informal Language

Its origin was, according to Random House Unabridged Dictionary:

first recorded in 1595–1605; en- + fetter

and according to Merriam-Webster:

First Known Use of enfetter 1599

Othello, was written in the very first years of the 17th century, so the term might have been in use in the period Shakespeare used it.

Note that prefix en is from Middle English:

  • a prefix occurring originally in loanwords from French and productive in English on this model, forming verbs with the general sense “to cause (a person or thing) to be in” the place, condition, or state named by the stem; more specifically, “to confine in or place on” (enshrine; enthrone; entomb); “to cause to be in” (enslave; entrust; enrich; encourage; endear); “to restrict” in the manner named by the stem, typically with the additional sense “on all sides, completely” (enwind; encircle; enclose; entwine). This prefix is also attached to verbs in order to make them transitive, or to give them a transitive marker if they are already transitive (enkindle; enliven; enshield; enface).
  • Per my comment to the question itself, one of the greatest texts in "Medieval English" is Piers Plowman, dated 1362 by OED (modernising the spelling: ...giveth the jailors both gold and groats, if they will unfetter the wicked to flee). By implication, prefixing fetter (with un- or en-) would probably have been quite natural to any reasonably literate Anglophone at least by then. All else is just What's the oldest surviving written instance of such a usage? - but I doubt that connects very closely to when it was actually first used. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 20:17
  • @FumbleFingers - I guess prefix un- means quite the opposite and its usage doesn’t imply the use of en-, essentially an intensifier here. “First usages” are stated by two dictionaries..not me. Btw, does the OED suggest any first/early usage of enfetter?
    – user 66974
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 20:30
  • Indeed. I'm not trying to undermine your answer as such - it's all perfectly true. And as I think your answer implies, several hundred years ago we were actually more likely to conscript the en- prefix given just the slightest pretext (generic intensifier, to underline the "causative / transitive" aspects, whatever). We don't do that so much today, and in at least some cases we've steered away from using previously well-established versions of the usage. But back in the day it was practically as trivial as adding the -ed suffix to indicate Past Tense. Hardly "neologistic". Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 20:40

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