title page of Much adoe about Nothing, by William Shakespeare – Quarto 1, 1600
– ado: a state of agitation or fuss
– without further, or more, ado: without further fuss or delay
– much ado about nothing: a great deal of fuss or trouble over nothing of any significance
The noun ado is from northern Middle English at do, of Scandinavian origin and meaning to do. In Old Norse, at was used before infinitives, like to in English.
Originally a verbal present infinitive construction, at do, when used predicatively with to have complemented by a pronominal object such as enough, little or much, was reinterpreted as a noun qualified by an adjective, leading to use with other adjectives in phrases such as to have great ado, which in turn led to independent uses of ado as a noun.
Similarly, in French, avoir à faire, meaning to have to do, gave rise to avoir affaire and to the noun affaire, meaning literally that which one has to do.
To have ado, meaning to have to do or to need to do, appears for example in the following passage from a letter that Anthony Lord Scales wrote to an unidentified person on 10th April 1469:
For asmoch as a maryage ys fully concluded bytwyx Ser John Paston and my ryght nere kynneswoman Anne Hawte, I will that ye and all othere my seruauntys and tenauntys vnderstaund that my lord my fader and I must of nature and reason shewe vnto hym oure gode assystens and favour in such maters as he shall haue a doo.
In The gospel according to Saint Matthew translated into English from the Greek, by Sir John Cheke (1514-57), humanist, royal tutor and administrator, 6:34 is:
Be not thoughtful ýeerfoor for to morow, for let to morow taak thought for itself. Euerí dai hath inough adoo with her own troble.
In the King James Version (1611), this verse is:
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of it selfe: sufficient vnto the day is the euill thereof.
This usage has long survived in Scotland and northern England. The following passage is from Welldean Hall, in Winter evening tales, collected among the cottagers in the south of Scotland (1821 edition) by the Scottish poet and novelist James Hogg (1770-1835):
The two friends had nothing ado but to sip a little brandy and water, and talk over the affair until the evening.
One of the original meanings of the noun ado was activity, business. For instance, in the English-Latin dictionary Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum (Storehouse for Children or Clerics – around 1440), “a-do” is a synonym of “grete bysynesse”.
It was used in the sense of commotion in the Book of Psalms, 46:6, in the Coverdale Bible (1535):
The Heithen are madd, the kyngdomes make moch adoo: but whe he [= the Lord] sheweth his voyce, ye earth melteth awaye.
In the King James Version, this is:
The heathen raged, the Kingdomes were mooued: hee vttered his voyce, the earth melted.
The English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the word to mean fuss, ceremony, in An excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet (Quarto 1, 1597) when Capulet tells Paris that he may marry Juliet:
On Thursday let it be: you shall be maried.
Wee’le make no great a doe, a frend or two, or so.
The expression without more ado is first recorded as “wyþ-oute more a-do” in Sir Ferumbras, a romance composed around 1380.
The first known user of much ado about nothing was John Whitgift (circa 1530-1604), Archbishop of Canterbury, in The defense of the aunswere to the Admonition, against the replie of T.C. (1574); he wrote, about the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy:
Wher hath the Apostle in al that Epistle spokē one word of the office of your Seniors, which you distinguish frō a minister of yᵉ word? wher doth he giue any such cōmandemēt cōcerning his office? Wher doth he prescribe any such for me or kind of gouernmēt? if he kéepe silēce in this matter thrugh yᵉ whole epistle, how dare you presume to say that to be cōmanded which is not mentioned, & to make so much adoe about nothing?
In later use, this expression was often influenced by the title of Shakespeare’s play, Much adoe about Nothing (Quarto 1, 1600).
Similarly, to-do came to be used as a noun meaning commotion, fuss, excitement, argument. William Lambarde (1536-1601), antiquary and lawyer, wrote the following in A Perambulation of Kent: conteining the description, hystorie, and customes of that shire. Written in the yeere 1570 (published in 1576):
A Pagan (or unchristened) King of Northumberland, had married a Christian woman, daughter to Penda, the King of Middle Englande, who would not (by any meanes) be knowen carnally of hir husband, till such time as he had condescended to forsake Idolatrie, and to become a Christian with hir. The husband (with much to doe) consented to the condition, and she not long after waxed great with childe.