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I like reading historical fiction, both mainstream and romance, but
unfortunately this means I sometimes encounter a word which was
completely unknown (or at minimum, unknown in the sense the writer
uses it) at the date of the story. This is particularly bothersome if
the period character actually says it.
I’m primarily talking about fiction set since 1750 —
roughly the “Georgian”, “Regency”,
“Victorian”, and “Modern” eras. When a novel
is set in 1600, it would be tedious if the characters all talked like
Shakespeare (Forsooth, sirrah!), and we certainly don’t
want the inhabitants of a novel set in 1400 to sound like Chaucer.
There seems to be an ill-defined “line of translation”
around 1700 after which we expect modern English but not necessarily
modern vocabulary in a historical novel. Before that, the author is
implicitly translating for us, just as if we are reading a novel set
in modern France or Germany, or on a starship in the 31st century.
For that post-1750 period, usually I simply blink and keep reading
when I encounter an anachronism, but occasionally I’ve been
tempted to follow the advice of Dorothy Parker’s famous review:
“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be
thrown with great force.”
Here is a partial list of words that have made me at least blink,
showing when each of them entered the English language. I could give
chapter and verse for many of them, but, as the saying goes, Names
Have Been Withheld to Protect the Guilty.
Note that some of these are what I call “soft
anachronisms” — terms which didn’t exist at the
time, but which were well-formed from other words (particularly with
Greek or Latin roots) which were known. As such, the
neologism would have been perfectly understandable to educated readers
or listeners of the period. For example, hallucinate
and hallucination have been in use since the
1650’s; they’re Greek for “mind wandering”.
Nobody found a need for hallucinogen until 1954, but
it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in 1654, since it is clearly
“that which generates hallucinations”. Similarly, words
like acrophobia, claustrophobia, and
xenophobiacould have been used hundreds of
years before they are actually recorded without anyone blinking. At
worst, the user might have been suspected of trying to show off his or
her knowledge of Greek. Shakespeare could have used the word
automobile, although he would have had points
deducted for mixing Greek auto- and Latin -mobile.
(The proper Greek for “self-moving” is
automaton, which indeed dates from about 1620,
although its adjective, automatic, didn’t
appear until about 1750. (Note that automobile is technically an
adjective modifying “vehicle”, “coach”, or
whatever. The Latin version, locomotive, was used in
English in 1612, again as an adjective.) Shakespeare could also have
mentioned a telephone (which in his time might have
meant a super ear trumpet or maybe a whispering gallery
—literally far-listener. Insecticide was first
used in 1865, but again, the obvious meaning of “insect
killer” could have been applied to preparations like
fleabane or to people who swatted flies in 1000 ce. (In
fact, one of the first things to be called an insecticide was the
starling.) An antibiotic would have been
“against life” clear back to Roman times, and in fact the
first sense in English was geographical, to describe places which were
inhospitable to living things. The medical sense came along in 1944 to
I mention below that the psycho- (mind) words like
psychology (study of the mind or soul) go back to the
mid-17th century, which means at that time nobody with an education should
have had a problem with psychosis (mind disease) or
psychoanalysis (mind examination), even though the
words were not actually used until 1847 and 1906, respectively. In
the Middle Ages, the particular obsession of a
pyromaniac or kleptomaniac would
have been obvious to anyone who knew Greek.
Nymphomaniac was the first to actually appear, in
1775. (Nympha literally meant a semi-divine young maiden in
classical Greek. In English it became a synonym for
“whore” in such uses as a “nymph of Drury” or
“nymph of the pavement”.)
Getting back to Latin, the meaning of
extra-terrestrial (beyond the Earth) would have been
clear a thousand years ago, let alone when it was actually first used
in 1868 to describe planets as “extra-terrestrial bodies”.
A medieval reference to an “extra-terrestrial being”
probably would have meant an angel, but it’s hard to come up
with a definition of “alien” or “ET” in the
science fiction sense that doesn’t include angels — an
intelligent non-human life form, not native to Earth, with abilities
and lifestyle very different from those of humans. In fact, since
angels as commonly depicted have
six appendages — two arms, two legs,
and two wings — they would seem to have modeled their appearance
on earthly insects rather than to the mammals and other vertebrates,
all of which have or had four. The only common mammal with six
appendages is of course the centaur, although at least one flying
horse has been reported in the literature. Given the accelerating
pace of genetic engineering, however, it won’t be that many
years until some mad scientist creates a flying pig just to prove a
point. (The newspaper headline announcing this will inevitably be
I have also included a few apparently non-existent words which are
often found in modern Georgian and Regency novels. These were usually
perpetrated by Georgette Heyer, who loved esoteric words and
constructions in her books. Some of these may be from sources the
dictionary-makers haven’t yet located (she obsessively read old
diaries, newspapers, and so on), but allegedly she was not above
making up a plausible-looking term now and then just to embarrass her
plagiarists. Since the current generation of historical romance
writers all cut their teeth on Heyer and recycle her vocabulary [and
plots] quite shamelessly, many of her usages are now common.
When I mention a specific year in connection with a word, it is the
earliest Oxford English Dictionary citation for that
meaning. As more and more manuscripts get searched and reported to
the editors, it is always possible that a much earlier example might
yet be found. In addition, since the oed quotations are
from printed works, it’s certainly conceivable that a word was
used in speech well before it appeared on paper, depending on its
informality and/or obscenity. Although this has to be whispered, I
also mention a few cases where the oed is wrong,
usually because Heyer had a greater command of early 19th century
vocabulary than the editors!
Since many novels of the period 1750–1850 are set in England, it
must be pointed out that the English did not and do not speak the same
language as Americans. There are many words which were used
in the colonies in that period which in England were unknown, would
never be used in polite conversation, or had an entirely different
meaning. See “dump”, “reliable”,
“fix”, “wilt”, “shimmy”,
“brash”, “calico”, “regardless”,
and hundreds more I haven’t gotten around to adding yet.
Sometimes a word was quite old and had gone out of use centuries
earlier in proper British English, but had been revived in American.
Certainly American English has and had a higher percentage of
Scots-Irish vocabulary compared to England, not to mention the New
York Dutch and Pennsylvania German infusions.
I hope writers will find this site helps them to avoid missteps, but I
understand how difficult it would be to attempt to eliminate all
errors without spending more time reading the Oxford English
Dictionary than writing books. In theory I approve of
accuracy, and I will admit I’m [slightly] obsessive, but I will
also admit that I like to read, and I really don’t want my
favorite authors to starve — I want them to write more (possibly
inaccurate) books, not fewer accurate ones.
Anachronisms and Other Sins
The adjective began to replace “abnormous” in 1817,
but the earlier word was still in use until about 1860.
This now means “very bad”, but until 1904, it only had
the literal meaning of bottomless or, at minimum, very deep. (The
ship sailed the abysmal ocean.) Cf. abyss.
The word was known in Scotland since the 17th century, but the
first recorded instance from south of the border is in 1856.
This isn’t even a word in modern English, but I
managed to see it used several times in a novel set in 1810!
Cf. “alot”, which despairing English teachers see alot of
these days. (The problem with alright is that there are several fully
accepted words formed in exactly the same way — for example
albeit, always, altogether, although, almost, also, already, and
almighty. It probably will be fully accepted in another generation or
1889. This is a good example of a soft anachronism, since the
adjective “ambient” has meant “surrounding”
since about 1600.
I found a reference in a novel set in 1812, but the waterfall
wasn’t known to the world until reported by an aviator named
Jimmy Angel in 1933, and it wasn’t named for him until 1937.
(Since in context the author used it as a synonym for
“torrent”, one would assume that said author had never
seen a picture of the high but very thin and wispy falls.)
In the sense of “in any event” or
“regardless” (“I don’t care what you say,
I’m going to ride to the village anyway!”) not until 1859.
Prior use was in the literal usage of the two words — “Is
there anyway I can help?” — and “I’m going to
ride to the village anyway” would have meant either on
horseback, using my carriage, the dogcart, or whatever.
I encountered a novel where the hero went to Istanbul to learn
Arabic. Unfortunately they speak Turkish in Istanbul, and Turkish and
Arabic are as unrelated as English and Chinese. (If you value your
health, don’t even think of calling a Turk an
Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador
These names were picked only after independence from Spain in the
1820–1830 era. Previously, Columbia was part of Nuevo Granada,
Argentina was the province of Rio de la Plata, and Bolivia and Ecuador
were Alto Peru. Some other South American names (Brazil, Peru, Chile,
Paraguay) go back much further, though. Venezuela (little Venice, from
the stilt-villages on Lake Maracaibo) was so-named by Vespucci in
1499, and Brazil was named by the Portuguese for the brazil trees
which grew there. (Well before the discovery of America, brazil or
brasil was an African and Asian tree which yielded a red dye.)
(See entry for Australia below for another possible anachronism.)
Not used in English until 1892. (It’s a translation of
German als ob, a philosophy term for a supposition not to be
In the sense of posterior, everybody knows this is how the
Americans spell British “arse” (pronounced
“ahss”). Surprisingly, this is not recorded even in
American speech until 1930!
1868, formed as a false singular from assets, a Law French term
(asetz) indicating sufficiency. Cf. cherry, pea, the
Heathen Chinee, and many more “if it ends in /S/, it must be
As a continent, 1817. Before that, the continent had been known as
New Holland. As a country, 1901. When Cook claimed the Eastern part of
the continent for Britain in 1770, he called the territory New South
Wales, while the western part, which still belonged to the Dutch,
continued to be called New Holland. The UK formally annexed it in
1828, calling it the Swan River Colony, later renamed Western
Australia. In the 19th century, there were six separate colonies
— New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Queensland (formed
by subdividing NSW), Western Australia, and Van Diemen’s
Land,(renamed Tasmania in 1856) — each with their own
government; they were federated into the Commonwealth of Australia in
The meaning of a low upholstered bench is not recorded until 1851.
The literal definition of “little bench” was first used in
the 17th century as a stand for soldiers to shoot over a parapet. In
Italian it had meant “table” for a couple of hundred years
before that, so that the edible banquet is technically the table, not
1888 in the current sense. The only examples of the verb up to
that time were concerned with water transportation — “They
barged down the canal.”
Baronets were created in 1611 as a gimmick by James I to raise
money for the occupation of Ireland. This is why the arms of a
baronet feature the “bloody hand” of the
O’Neills, the Lámh Dhearg Uladh, emblem of
Ulster. (Ulstermen sometimes point out that the English typically got
things backwards, since the baronial device is a left hand while
the O’Neill emblem, as shown here, is the right.)
Going backwards, viscount was added to the peerage in 1440, marquis in
1399, and duke in 1351. Before that, the only ranks were baron and
earl. This caution was made necessary by reading about William the
Conqueror making somebody’s ancestor a baronet. (William was
called the “Earl of Normandy” in contemporary chronicles.
Duke was known only as a foreign title until Edward III created the
first English dukes — the Duke of Cornwall in 1351 and Duke of
Lancaster in 1361. Elizabeth I didn’t like the title, and there
were no dukes at all in England during her reign.)
barque of frailty
One of Heyer’s euphemisms for a female of no particular
virtue. Not in the dictionary. Cf. “bit of muslin”.
(Another “oopsie” for the OED — one of my readers
found a citation in Egan’s 1821 Life in London to
describe a woman who was an opera dancer — that passage might
have been Heyer’s source for the phrase.) In any case the phrase
is a play on the Bible, where St. Paul (a vicious misogynist) in 1
Peter 3:7 called upon husbands to show honor to their wives as the
As a verb, to move quickly and forcefully, this is American slang
from 1930. The Brits didn’t pick it up until after World War
An Americanism first recorded in 1836. Not used in England until
1858 as a fine soft woolen cloth, used for dresses. This was
originally made from raw wool, hence the color name (first attested in
1879), but it was occasionally dyed, so it was theoretically possible
for a lady to wear a bright blue beige dress. Cf.
ecru (1869), another color word from French, which is
literally “crude” or “raw”, used to describe
As a verb, to hit, 1838. (I belted him in the chops.) Not until
1898 in the corresponding noun sense. (She gave him a belt on the
1851, as if the last syllable of Icelandic
berserkr was a verbal noun suffix. Berserker the
person was first used by Scott in 1814, and the first time berserker
was applied to someone other than a Scandinavian was in 1839.
Benjamin Franklin may have invented them in 1784, but he called
them “double spectacles”. They weren’t called
bifocals until 1899.
This is a purely American name, first recorded in 1856, for the
constellation known in England as “the Plough” or
“Charles’s Wain” and in Latin as the “Big
Bear”, Ursus Major.
1854, from a dialect word that means “soak”.
1871. The adjective “binocular” itself is much older,
of course, in the sense of “having two eyes” — the
optical instrument is short for binocular telescope or binocular
1919 in the disparaging sense of “girl”. It is Arabic
for “daughter” and was brought back by English soldiers
serving in the Near East in World War I. Sir Richard Burton used it
as an Arabic word in his 1855 book about his disguised pilgrimage to
Mecca. Apparently in Arabic it is used as slang for
“woman” in general, much as Afro-Americans use
1895. Its cousin necropsy appears in 1842.
Autopsy (q.v.) is much older, though.
1852. Birth-day present is recorded in 1796, but this may refer
to a present given to the mother on the occasion of a child’s
birth. The first unambiguous use in the modern sense is 1854. The
party seems to have originally been a German custom, adopted by the
Victorians along with the Christmas tree.
Even though every Regency drawing room is full of gentlemen
wearing biscuit-colored breeches or pantaloons, the term was first
used as a color in 1884 in a fashion note about “biscuit
bit of muslin
I’ve seen this in fifty Regency novels as a disparaging
euphemism for “woman” and particularly, “loose
woman”, but it isn’t recorded until 1823, and then simply
to mean “woman”. Georgian or Regency use is due to Heyer.
Cf. “barque of frailty”, “muslin trade”,
bite the bullet
According to the oed, this phrase was first used to
mean “show courage” by Kipling in 1891, making it maybe
2,500 years younger than “bite the dust”, discussed below.
However, this is a “gotcha” for the oed,
because it is in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
— see “bran-faced”. Perhaps I should suggest that
the editors of the oed obtain a copy of that book.
1833 as a term for the Great Plague, translating German
Schwarzer Tod, used the previous year. It has been
suggested that this was possibly a mis-translation of Latin mors
atra, horrible death, helped along by Latin using the same word
for “black” and “terrible”. Cf.
atrocious. (To some extent this was a return to the
original meaning; German schwarz doesn’t have the
secondary meaning of hopeless or evil that English “black”
has, cf. a black mood, black magic, etc. The physical symptoms of the
disease can cause necrosis (gangrene) of the fingertips, but that
doesn’t seem to be the source of the name, unlike Yellow Fever,
which does cause jaundice.) C.f. bubonic plague
below; also an anachronism at the time.
1819 in the sense “exhausted by pleasure”, but 1930
with the current meaning of “bored, unimpressed”.
As a slightly more acceptable version of “bloody” (the
bleeding fool had bleeding well better do it, etc.) it is not recorded
Not until 1958 as an excessively soft-hearted or sympathetic
person. It began in 1691 as a kind of cherry blossom with a red spot
in the center.
Amazingly, this didn’t mean “briefly close the
eyes” until 1858. (To blink away tears is first recorded in
1905.) In Shakespeare’s time the word meant
“twinkle”, and the original sense seems to be the same
word as “blench”, to flinch or turn away. Cf. “see
who blinks first” to describe a tense confrontation.
A purely American word. In midwestern slang, it had meant a
stunning blow or overwhelming argument, beginning in 1829, but it
wasn’t used until 1859 in the current sense of a violent
snowstorm. The word was only known in rural America until it was
popularized in the 1880’s, particularly by the historic
“Blizzard of 1888”, when on March 13th the East Coast of
the US received over four feet of snow. Since the wind
was a steady 50 mph, snowdrifts 50 feet high were recorded in places,
people were trapped in their houses for days, and there was no road or
rail transportation anywhere from Chesapeake Bay to Canada for over a
week. The Blizzard was responsible for several changes in urban
infrastructure, particularly putting electric and telephone lines
underground and building the first US subways in Boston and then New
1861. Possibly from Gypsy or Hindi, where loke means
Originally (about 1745) this extremely expensive delicate French
lace (dentelle blonde) was indeed blonde in color, being made
from unbleached silk. By 1800 the silk threads were almost always black or white,
and the term was used for any fine silk lace woven with tiny hexagonal
cells. These days it is usually called Chantilly lace.
PS — Blonde and blond are used almost interchangeably these
days, particularly in the US, but technically “blonde” is
a female adjective or noun and “blond” is male. Thus,
“blond lace” is incorrect.
All too many historical novelists seem to think this is a mild
expletive — I can’t think how many books I have read where
Our Hero uses the word in front of Ye Gentle Heroine, and several
where YGH says it herself when provoked. From about 1750 through the
early 20th century this was not mild in Britain; it was a
filthy obscenity, and a person with any sort of manners would no more
have said “bloody” in mixed company than he or she would
have said “fucking”. As late as 1913, Shaw caused a minor
riot when he had the semi-transformed Eliza Doolittle say “Walk!
Not bloody likely!” in Pygmalion. Amusingly, when
the play was made into the movie My Fair Lady fifty years
later, the word had lost all its shock value, and Alan Jay Lerner had
Eliza shout “Move your bloomin’ arse!” to a horse at
As a verb, 1846 in connection with the American game of poker.
The current meaning of “make indistinct” didn’t
appear until 1859 as a verb and 1860 as a noun, Before that, it meant
a smear, blot, or stain, in phrases like “he had many blurs upon
his character”. The modern sense possibly arose through comments
like “I cannot read his blurred handwriting”, i.e.,
smeared or blotted.
The sense of one living an artistic or unconventional lifestyle is
not recorded in English until 1848. The term was popularized by the
1845 French novel La Vie de Bohème (The Bohemian
Life) — the source of Puccini’s 1896 opera La
Bohème — set in the Parisian left bank artistic
community. Before that, it was the French word for a Gypsy.
As a verb, to mess up or bungle, particularly in the phrase
“bollixed up”, 1901. As a noun meaning testicles, 1948.
Either way it is the plural of ballock, a word in common use since Old
English, almost four hundred years before the use of
“ball” in the same sense. (By the way, the use of
“balls” to mean courage, determination, or
“guts”, in phrases like “That took balls!”,
used of a male or female, is also 20th century.)
1850 as a noun (the schoolboy trick with a bucket of water or
stack of books balanced above a door), and 1943 as a verb. Both modern
senses of booby (a stupid or gullible person and a gannet) go back to
the early 17th century; Spanish bobo meant both. (The bird
acquired its reputation because it has no fear of humans and can be
caught by hand.) Cf. “dodo” and “gull”, where
the bird name came first. Nobody received a booby prize until 1889.
These are known in the literal sense only from 1891. The first
citation for “by his bootstraps” to mean “unaided
effort” is 1922, in Ulysses.
1852, in Dickens, although the verb is about 90 years older.
Not used as a euphemism for “breasts” (“Stop
staring at my bosoms!” she said.) until 1959.
1907 as a narrow place in a roadway; 1928 in the general sense of
“hindrance” or “constriction”, as a production
Not used to mean a cad or objectionable person until 1889. In the
1840’s, a bounder was a four-wheeled cab, from its motion on
This term for December 26th is first recorded in 1833. It is St.
Stephen’s Day, and for centuries the custom of going from house
to house begging for gifts was called “Stephening”. Cf.
the Victorian carol Good King Wenceslas (1853), which
described the King as giving alms “on the feast of
Stephen”. There was an old joke that Stephen must have been a
wonderful saint because St. Stephen’s Eve did not require
It was used to mean “freckled”, but I could find no
record of this in the oed and decided it was another
Heyerism. However, I must apologize to the lady — it’s in the
1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
American slang from 1824, but not used in British English until
the 20th century.
bridge [of a ship]
1843. The “bridge” was a design feature of early
steamships; it rapidly acquired the meaning “command
point”. Sailing ships were commanded from the quarterdeck.
Designed by Baron Brougham & Vaux in 1838 — a very
maneuverable one-horse closed carriage which made a good taxi.
(Note the cutout under the driver so the front wheels could turn
sharply.) The Lord and his carriage were pronounced
“broom”, by the way. In a related example of odd
pronunciation in the Peerage, a 20th-century Viscountess of Norwich
refused to use her title because, as she said, “I don’t
want to sound like breakfast cereal”. (Norwich rhymes with
1886. The disease was known as The Pest, or if emphasis was
needed, “the Great Pestilence”, when it afflicted the
known world in 1347–1348. Note that the responsible organism is
today known as Yersinia pestis, but when first identified in
the 1890’s it had the name of the discoverer: Pasteurella
pestis. It began to be known as “the plague” in 1564,
“the Black Death” in 1832, but “bubonic
plague” only in the late 19th century. The word
“bubonic” itself — having buboes, or swollen lymph
glands — dates from 1871. (“Plague” itself
originally meant a blow or wound, and then any infliction, as in
“I wish he would stop plaguing me.” Note the biblical ten
plagues of Egypt, most of which were not diseases.)
1894 as a bundle of hair at the nape of the neck. The older term
was “chignon”, which does mean “nape”
in French. (The original meaning of “bun” seems to have
been “rounded mass”, leading to the bakery sense, the tail
of the bunny rabbit, bunch, etc., but not bundle, which is a
The notorious murderer William Burke was captured and executed in
1829, and his name became a general verb for “stifle” or
“smother” — to burke a bill in Parliament, e.g.
— in about 1835.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the appropriateness of the sound,
both noun and verb are first recorded as American slang in 1932. The
older term is “belch”, but as far as I know, that was
never used transitively like burp for an operation on babies —
nobody ever belched a baby.
1819 as a euphemism for a woman’s breasts. The sense of a
sculpture consisting of head, shoulders, and chest is over a hundred
years older in English. Bust line was not recorded until 1939, and
busty until 1944.
1832 as an ill-mannered or offensive person, a boor. The earlier
definition was errand-boy, making it the same word as
“caddie” and “cadet”. The current usage seems
to started as Oxford University slang for the residents of the city,
as if they were good for nothing but to run and fetch for the
In America, a colorful printed cotton fabric. In
England, it was usually plain white, bleached or unbleached.
The Brits would say “printed calico” for the colorful
1866 in the current undergarment sense. 1816 as a sleeved jacket.
It’s a diminutive of chemise (q.v.), a much
Can of worms
1962. Can itself, in its current sense, was first used in Old
English, though, usually as a drinking vessel.
This is literally a “posterboard” or “heavy
paper” in Italian. Its only meaning in English was “an
artist’s full-size preliminary study” until the
1840’s. The first use in the current sense is from
In the sense of a forked stick with elastic, equivalent to the
American slingshot, not until 1871. The military engine sense goes
back to the Romans, though.
Celebrity was first used in 1849 in the modern sense of a famous
person. Before that it was strictly an abstract noun meaning either
fame or notoriety, as in “The evil assassin had a great deal of
celebrity.” Meanwhile, celebration only had a religious sense
prior to 1844 — performance of a rite, as in a celebration of
marriage or celebration of the mass.
c'est la vie
French for “that’s life”, but not recorded in an
English-language document until 1854.
Used since the 1640’s in its original theological definition
of “gift of God’s grace”, but not secularized to
“gift of leadership” until 1930. Early quotations in the
modern sense all refer to Hitler. The current meaning has been
generalized to “ability to inspire enthusiasm or
devotion”. Cf. “aura”, another religious term used
in a similar manner, and also note the original meaning of
prestige, given below. (Eucharist,
a “good gift”, shows the same root.)
As an adjective meaning a pale green, this is yet another color
word that entered English at a late date — 1888 in this case.
(Actually, it also meant a fairly bright yellow at that time, there
being two different varieties of the beverage. The liqueur name (from
the Carthusian monastery of Le Grande Chartreuse) dates from
1866, although it had earlier names. Cf. beige, ecru, magenta,
tangerine, cobalt, etc.
1870 as exaggerated patriotism. Not generalized from
“extreme loyalty to ones own country” to “prejudice
against all others” (male chauvinist, etc.) until 1955.
Borrowed from French to mean a head cook in 1842. (It is the
normal French word for “chief” — English usage is
short for chef de cuisine.) Incidentally, French chef
d’œuvre, a masterpiece, was used in English beginning
chemin de fer
This variation of bacarrat was first played (at least under that
name) in 1880. (It stands to reason the term wouldn’t have
existed in Georgian or Regency times, since it is French for
“railroad”. Cf. German eisenbahn, also
literally “iron path”, although German clipped it to the
simple bahn before cars came along, so that a highway had to
be qualified as an autobahn.) The oed has a
quotation from the 1830’s dealing with some conservative French
priests condemning the new-fangled chemin de fer as the
chemin de infer, road to Hell.
An old word for a shirt or smock. The current sense of
“undergarment” dates from about 1840; it was a euphemism
for the suddenly-vulgar “shift”.
1879 in the current sense of tastefully fashionable. 1856 in the
general sense of “superior”.
Defined as “chirpy” in 1840.
1903. Chiropractic as a method of treatment is recorded for
1898. Cf. osteopath.
A twentieth century concoction.
The lethal epidemic disease now known by this name (aka Asiatic
cholera or cholera morbus) did not appear in Europe until 1831
and America in 1832. Before then, “cholera” was a
different and much milder intestinal ailment (an E. coli infection,
aka “food poisoning”) now called European cholera or
summer diarrhea. This version, known for hundreds of years, was
dangerous mainly to infants, who are very easily killed by dehydration
even today. Asiatic cholera, on the other hand, if not treated can
kill an adult in a few hours and wipe out an entire village in a week.
epidemic of 1831–32 was the most lethal disease outbreak in
Europe between the Black Plague and the 1918 Influenza pandemic.
(“Cholera” isn’t related to “colic” and
“colon” as a general term for a bowel complaint, but
instead is from Greek chole, bile. Cf. choleric and
This didn’t mean “jerky” — “The
Channel is quite choppy today,“ — until 1867. Before that
it had the literal meaning of having been chopped into pieces.
Invented by Lewis Carroll in 1872 in Jabberwocky,
along with all those slithy toves and the frumious Bandersnatch.
Some anachronistic carols have a nasty tendency to sneak into
books set in the Regency — I recently read a novel set in 1814
which described Silent Night as an “old familiar
hymn” (technically, no carol is a hymn, by the way), and one
featuring street carolers singing “God Rest Ye Merry” and
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in 1808. I also encountered
“God Rest Ye Merry” being parodied at Christmas, 1814, and
“Deck the Halls” quoted in another Regency novel. These
are all impossible. Silent Night — or rather,
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht — was written and first
performed in Austria in 1818, but the English translation was done in
1859. Deck the Halls was written in 1866. Hark!
The Herald Angels Sing didn’t become known outside
Methodist circles (the words are by Charles Wesley) until it was set
to Mendelssohn’s music (originally a cantata about Gutenberg!)
in the 1840’s. Many other “traditional” Christmas
carols are products of Victorian sentimentalism: God Rest Ye
Merry, Gentlemen was written in 1833, Here We Come
a-Wassailing [or Caroling] in 1850, Good King
Wenceslaus in 1853, We Three Kings in 1857,
O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, and It Came
Upon The Midnight Clear in 1874. There are some carols known
well before the 19th century, though — The First
Noel, I Saw Three Ships, and Angels We Have
Heard on High, for example.
Adeste Fidelis looks medieval, but in fact the Latin
text and tune were written in 1743, in England. The current English
translation — “Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and
triumphant…” — wasn’t done until 1852. (The
translator had tried before, in 1841, producing “Hither ye
faithful, haste with songs of triumph…”.)
I must admit I haven’t seen Rudolph The Red-Nosed
Reindeer or The Little Drummer Boy in a Regency
1800 in the current sense of a non-military person. Previously,
it meant a judge or authority on civil law. Current usage is by way
of “civilian” being used for a member of the Indian Civil
Service of the East India Company.
The current meaning is first recorded in 1772. Before that it was
a legal term, the act of turning a criminal matter into a civil one.
1879. Most of the psychiatric -phobia words date from
the 1870’s and 1880’s, although hydrophobia as a symptom
of rabies goes back to the Greeks. On the other hand,
phobia itself — “I have a phobia about
Almack’s,“ — was first used in the modern sense in
this 1786 quotation: “I shall begin, by defining Phobia in the
present instance, to be a fear of an imaginary evil, or an undue fear
of a real one.”
This was first used to mean the valley between the breasts in 1946
— it was a euphemism employed by the Hollywood censorship office
when complaining about too much exposure in a movie. An older term
Stale phrase, 1892. 1832 in the original sense of a stereotype
block used by printers. (It’s the French form of
“click” — the sound allegedly made by the stereotype
1918 as a noun meaning an orgasm. Not until 1975 as a verb
“to achieve orgasm”.
1928 to mean coldly precise and unemotional speech. The adjective
literally means “at the bed” and had been used for 150
years to describe medical school lectures given at a patient’s
I’ve seen several references to the infamous Clink prison in
books set in the Regency or later, but it was burned down by rioters
in 1780 and not rebuilt. The Fleet prison, used mainly for debtors in
later centuries, was destroyed in the same riot but was promptly
rebuilt; it wasn’t shut down until 1844. Both prisons had been
in operation for about 650 years. BTW, a “fleet marriage”
had nothing to do with the Navy; it was a clandestine ceremony.
Disreputable clerics were notorious for hanging around the
neighborhood of the Fleet prison.
1944 as a verb, to hit or defeat.
In the sense of tutor, noun and verb, 1848. It’s a metaphor
for someone “carrying” a student along. Cf. to train,
which literally means to drag. That one is a couple of hundred years
The element name goes back to 1653 in English and even further in
German, but it wasn’t used to mean a deep blue color (cobalt
eyes, cobalt glass …) until 1849.
Invented in 1845.
1857, evidently as a back-formation from the obsolete Latin legal
The children’s game involving testing the durability of
small items on strings is first recorded in 1847, using snail shells
as the implements. The first mention of using horse chestnuts instead
is in 1886, presumably because little boys had caused English snails
to go extinct. Incidentally, a conker is not related to
“conk”, to hit. That seems to be from
“conch”, slang for nose, while the game sense is from
As a verb meaning to communicate with — “Lord Redstart
contacted his solicitor” — not until 1927. Before that,
the sentence would have meant that the earl physically reached out and
touched the person. “In contact” translates from Latin as
“in touch with”, but that wouldn’t have worked as a
substitute either; see below.
Soldier slang for a louse, first recorded in 1917. It is Malay
Patented and trademarked in 1889 as a smokeless replacement for
No problem if the person is speaking Cymric (it’s Welsh for
“dwarf dog”), but the word is not recorded in
English until 1926.
Not used in the sense of an elegant man about town until 1819.
Corinthians replaced “dandies” and were in turn replaced
by “swells”. The earlier definition, to quote the
Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, was “a frequenter of
brothels; also an impudent brazen faced fellow”. All this goes
back to the ancient reputation of Corinth for wealth and
licentiousness. Cf. Cyprian for prostitute; in
ancient times Cyprus was famous (or notorious) for the enthusiastic
worship of Aphrodite.
1869 in the sense of a bludgeon. Nineteenth-century policemen
normally called their lead pipe a life preserver.
1766 as a type of dance (They danced a cotillion together), but
not until 1898 as a formal ball (On Friday there was a grand cotillion
for the season’s debutantes.)
Found only in American lawns. In Britain, crabgrass once meant a
certain reed growing in salt marshes, but that usage is long obsolete.
It must be pointed out that in times of yore, various English weeds
were referred to as “crap-grass”, but the American plant
really is named for the crab, since it sprawls out from a center.
1898 in the sense of excrement. Back to the Middle Ages in the
original sense of “dregs” or “scraps”.
Cf. feces for another word that originally meant
dregs. (That “crap-grass” in the preceding item was
so-named because the weed tended to get mixed with grain.)
Crassus was the Latin word for “fat” or
“thick”. The meaning developed in the same way as
“gross”, but it was not applied to a person until 1861.
Not used in the general sense of a fool or idiot until 1884.
Before that, the only definition was specifically, in the words of the
oed, “One of a class of dwarfed and specially
deformed idiots found in certain valleys of the Alps and
elsewhere.” (It is now known that the birth defects were due to
iodine deficiency.) Cf. moron, also an anachronism
before 1910. Idiot, however, goes back to 1300 in
the modern sense. Imbecile is recorded in 1550 for
one who is physically weak, but not until 1755 for the modern meaning
of mentally weak.
1870 as a double line of schoolgirls on an outing.
Not used for a thief or swindler until 1879, in American slang.
It filled a need, because within five years it was in use everywhere
from England to Australia. Prior to 1879, the only meaning was a
curved or hooked implement. Crooked, however, has
meant immoral or dishonest since about 1225, using the same metaphor
as its opposite, straight.
The game was possibly played in Ireland in the 1840’s, but
the game was introduced into England in 1858. The word obviously is
French, where it meant both shepherd’s crook and hockey stick.
Older hoop-mallet-ball games go back to the Middle Ages. Cf.
pall-mall, known since 1566.
This meant “✕-shaped” in phrases like
“the surgeon made a crucial incision.” The word did not
acquire the modern meaning of “decisive” or
“critical” until 1830, although medieval philosophers had
used Latin crux in the sense of “difficulty”.
Sports fans (and dog owners) are familiar with the all-too-vulnerable
cruciate ligaments inside the knee; they used to be called the crucial
ligaments, so both senses now apply.
Cruciate ligaments are stabilizing structures of several joints beside
the knee — the fingers, neck, and ankle in particular. The
cruciate ligaments on the top of the ankle keep the big front tendon
that raises the foot (and the smaller ones that wiggle the toes) in
place, while that of the neck (also called the transverse ligament of
the atlas) holds the skull attached to the spinal column. The
most-commonly referenced anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) of the knee
keeps the lower leg from slipping forward out from under the thigh
Invented by a press agent in 1936 to describe Mae West.
As applied to the female figure (“voluptuous curves”),
cut to the chase
Movie slang from the 1920’s. “Cut” is
Hollywoodese for “change scene”, and the implication is to
stop the talk and get to the action.
A moment’s thought would lead to the conclusion that this
nickname for a straight razor must post-date the invention of the
safety razor, and indeed the first citation in the oed is
in 1932. The literal sense of “cut-throat” to mean a
murderer was first recorded in the 1560’s, as was the figurative
use (cut-throat competition, etc.)
The chemical term was coined in 1825, denoting any chemical
compound containing cyanogen (the CN radical). Kianos is the
Greek word for blue-green, and cyanogen itself was coined in 1815
because it was a component of Prussian Blue dye. Potassium cyanide
(used in rat poison) was called “black cyanide” (an
oxymoron, please note) beginning in the 1860’s, with the simple
term being adopted even later.
I doubly winced at a Regency novel featuring a person who spoke
Czechoslovakian. (a) There was no such country until 1918, when the
Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up after World War I, and (b) There
never was and never will be such a thing as a person speaking
Czechoslovakian — Czechs and Slovaks have always spoken
different languages, and they are now separate countries again. Cf.
Yugoslavia, which was formed at the same time as an artificial
conglomeration of all the “South Slavs” — Bosnia,
Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Herzegovina. It
has since disintegrated into its component parts, and the
fragmentation even continued when the province of Kosovo declared
independence from Serbia.
1881 as a euphemism for “damned”, perhaps from the
practice of printing the word as d----d to avoid the censors. The
exclamation “Dash it!” is recorded for 1800, though.
The horticultural sense (removing dead or faded flowers from a
plant, or the flowers so removed) is first recorded in the
1950’s. The meaning of a person admitted free to something
— theater, train, or whatever — goes back to 1841.
1920 in the time limit sense. The literal meaning of a line which
cannot be crossed without fatal results originated in 1864 as a
military term in the US Civil War, when the infamous Andersonville
prison camp had a light fence (in some places a chalked boundary)
around the inside of the stockade, and any prisoner who crossed it
into the “killing field” was shot on sight.
The prison superintendent, Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate to be
executed for war crimes; Andersonville wasn’t any worse than
other prisoner of war camps, North or South, but he had the extreme
misfortune to come to trial only a couple of weeks after the
assassination of President Lincoln, and the Union public was not in a
1848 in the current sense. Before that, the only definition was a
flash flood. (It is French for “unbar”, used for dams
breaking and spring ice jams giving way.)
1817. The anglicized spelling (without the accent) and with
pronunciation “debyou-“ (instead of the French
“dayboo-“) are 20th-century. The shortened form
“deb” isn’t recorded until 1922, in James
Joyce’s Ulysses, believe it or not. (Début
was also spelled with an acute accent until the 20th century, and it
still is pronounced that way.)
1834, although decadence was known earlier. The literal meaning is
“falling down”, although I was tempted to claim it
referred to an elderly person with only “ten teeth”.
1887, while the Englished form “declassed” was used
one year later. In any case, it is “removed from one’s
[social] class, degraded”. Note that when used to describe
females, technically the noun is déclassée. Cf.
Noun, 1894. The adjective décolleté was first used
in 1831 to describe dresses of which the Queen disapproved.
Used in 1897 for theatrical scenery; in 1926 as an interior
decorating term. Decorate, decorative, and decoration go back to the
Middle Ages, though.
This word, to fire into the air at a duel, appeared in 1836, but
its existence in Georgian and Regency novels is a Heyerism — the
next two quotations after 1836 in the oed are both from
Heyer novels a hundred years later. It would be tempting to accuse the
lady of an anachronism, except for evidence that she knew Regency
vocabulary better than the editors of the OED.
The first time de luxe was used (in italics, in the French
phrase édition de luxe) was 1819. The first time it was
used for anything except a fancy book (and the first time without
italics) was a “train de luxe” in 1890. Just plain
luxe, the French word by itself, goes clear back to 1558 in
English, however. In typical English use of alliterative /L/, the
first citation in the oed is “in luxe and
A certain novel set in 1836 contains a character who “owns a
string of South African diamond mines”. This is my current
record for problems in one phrase — five errors in eight words.
There was no country of South Africa until 1910 (the British
possession was known as Cape Colony).
Diamonds were not discovered in the region until 1871.
The diamond (and later gold) mines were not even in Cape Colony.
They were in the Orange Free State and Transvaal, both Dutch. Britain
did promptly annex the diamond mines, ultimately leading to the Boer
Wars between 1880 and 1902.
Nobody owned a “string of South African diamond
mines”. In the 19th century there were only three, which hardly
counts as a “string”. (There are only six in South Africa
In the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, nobody owned a
diamond mine unless they happened to be named De Beers or (possibly)
(For almost 3,000 years, the world’s sole source of diamonds
had been southern India, but by 1750 those sources were played out.
For the next hundred years all new gem-quality diamonds came from
Brazil, but now it mainly produces industrial diamonds. For most of
the 20th century, the largest producer was indeed South Africa, but
now the largest producers of gem-quality diamonds are Russia,
Botswana, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in that order.
Australia actually has the largest diamond mine, but it produces
mostly brown diamonds, which have little value for jewelry.)
This vulgar term for a penis first appeared in the USA in 1930,
and for at least the next forty years was only cited from US and
The first known use of the word was in a US patent in 1847.
This didn’t really begin to mean “stupid” until
perhaps 1850. Before that, it just meant “silent”. The
more common epithet of one lacking in intelligence, going back to Old
English, was “dull”. St. Thomas Aquinas was jokingly
called the “Dumb Ox” because he was a big, lumbering man
who spoke as little as possible, but not even his detractors ever
thought he was unintelligent. Cf. “dumbbell”, originally
an apparatus of weights and ropes for training bell-ringers without
actually making any noise.
The noun use was first recorded in 1865 as an American mining term
and 1891 in the general sense of a place for depositing refuse (city
dump). Application to a run-down house followed in 1895. The use as a
verb (to dump something into the street, etc.) was unknown in England
until about 1880, although it had been American slang for a hundred
1919, an American word borrowed from Pennsylvania Dutch
dunken, to dip. German-American Baptists were often known as
1861 in English.
1869. See beige.
1864 in the sense of “irritable” or
“jumpy”. From 1775 it had been used in the literal sense
— “This is a very edgy razor.”
I have a long list of novels set in the beautiful spring and
summer of 1816. Unfortunately, as all authors setting books in that
period ought to know, 1816 was the infamous “Year Without a
Summer” due to the volcanic eruption of Tambora in Indonesia the
year before. That was the most violent explosion in recorded history,
ten times as powerful as the more famous Krakatoa. The entire northern
hemisphere had an extremely cold and wet year, with the worst famines
of the century. For example, in the United States there were massive
crop failures, because all areas north of Philadelphia had a killing
frost every month of the year. In England the widespread famine
exacerbated the economic depression that followed the end of the
Napoleonic wars, leading to riots. It is estimated that 200,000 people
died in Europe that year from weather-related starvation or disease.
Similar problems afflicted India and southern China, where the monsoon
failed. Snow fell in Taiwan, which is in the tropics. On a lighter
front, in Italy the weather was so bad that the holiday party of the
Shelleys was trapped indoors much of the time; so instead of
sightseeing, Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein; or The
Modern Prometheus to relieve her boredom.
As a verb meaning to expand upon a subject (He elaborated upon his
dislike of oysters…), 1934. Previously it had the etymological
definition — to make “from labor”, particularly from
raw materials, in phrases like “The physician elaborated a new
cure for quinsy”. (What we now call a laboratory was once an
elephant [never forgets an injury]
This cliché first appeared in 1910. For the preceding 2,000
years, the animal which proverbially held a grudge was the camel.
Given the disposition of the camel, this made sense, but I can’t
help but wonder, “How could they tell?”
1823. (It’s the French form of “elect”.)
The first unequivocal use to mean “run away with the intent
of being married“ is in 1813. Before that, it originally meant
for a wife to desert her husband (a legal term), and to abscond or run
away in general. Dickens mentions a valet eloping with all the
valuables. To lope meant to escape long before it was generalized to
Psychology jargon from about 1900 — literally
“in-feeling” in Greek.
1860 in the current sense; before that it meant
“surroundings” in general, as the word still does in
1841 in the current sense of irregular or unstable. The literal
meaning (wandering) was first recorded in Chaucer — an erratic
knight and so on. Cf. errant.
1851 in the sense of peculiar to a race or nation. That was its
original definition in ancient Greek, but for 2,200 years it
only meant “heathen” — the Greeks used it to render
Hebrew goyim in their translation of the Old Testament.
First noted in 1846 as a “wild west” American game; I
can find no references to it being played in England before about
1890. The generalized verb, to outwit or triumph over, was first used
in the United States in the 1860’s.
1846 to mean “unusual”, and 1868 to mean
1855 in the current sense of “mentally agitated”. The
verb “to excite” had the meaning “set in
motion” going back to 1340.
1825 as a noun. Much earlier as an adjective (expert witness,
Used once in 1682 (phan) as a clipped form of
“fanatic”; the next recorded use (baseball fan) was in
1889 in American English. Not picked up in England until 1914. (The
instrument for moving air was not applied to cooling faces or whatever
until 1555; as a basket for winnowing grain, it is Old English.)
American authors have a tendency to use this word as a synonym for
“backside” — I have read at least three novels where
the heroine slipped and landed on her fanny. Unfortunately,
that’s an Americanism dating only from 1928. In British English,
the word is a coarse term for the female genitals — landing on
one’s fanny is therefore anatomically unlikely. According to the
oed, even that usage only dates from about 1880, but cf.
the heroine of the most famous erotic novel of the 18th century,
Fanny Hill, which certainly seems to be a pun on mons
veneris. (Her name might be a double pun, since the author would
have known that clitoris is Greek for “small
fear of God
An excellent soft anachronism. Although to “put the fear of
God into” someone as a synonym of to terrify into submission
should have been understandable anytime the last thousand years, the
first citation is in 1905. (To “rub the fear of God into“
appeared in 1890.)
1896 as American slang with the meaning of aggressive or
excitable. Before that, a feist was a “stinking hound”,
from a Middle English word which meant to fart. Now you understand
those Elizabethan puns about “making a fist”.
1853. The masculine fiancé appeared in 1864.
1855 as a theatrical flop; generalized to any dismal failure by
To drive a carriage, this is Heyer again, and not in the
1827 in the current sense of a good or exciting time; previously
only as a military or hunting phrase — a day spent in the field.
I managed to find one of these attached to a gun in a novel set in
1812. The first oed citation is 1890, and the first
cartridges which would need such a thing were around 1850. In 1812,
all guns still used the flintlock.
This phrase, meaning “the very best quality or
fashion” seems to be another Heyerism (see town bronze). It
isn’t in the dictionaries at all.
As a verb, the common current meaning of repair, “fix
up”, was purely American until the 20th century, and even in the
States it was regarded as illiterate. On both sides of the Atlantic,
the main proper meaning of “to fix” was to fasten or make
permanent — “He fixed his eyes on Miss Smith” or
“The stakes were fixed in place.” A secondary definition
of to decide was known in good company since 1788, so that both
“fix on” (“He has fixed on Miss Smith as his
bride”) and “fix to” (“I’m fixing to go
to the village”) were in polite use in England, although the
latter certainly sounds like an American vulgar expression. Noun use
to mean “position” — “We’re in a hell of
a fix!” — was definitely an Americanism until about 1900,
1881. It is French for “odor”, ultimately the same
word as “fragrant”. The meaning went from having a sense
of smell to “perceptive” to “having instinctive
discernment”. The further extension to “aptitude or
talent” is purely English.
First in 1832 as a French architectural term to describe a Gothic
style with “flame-like” curves. The sense of
“flame-colored” was first used in 1851, and finally,
“showy”, in 1879.
In a novel set in about 1900, I found photographers wielding
cameras equipped with flashbulbs. Unfortunately, the items in question
weren’t called that until 1935. Before that, beginning in 1890,
they were flashlamps. (The original flashlamp used magnesium dust
blown into a small flame, but this unweildy method was soon replaced
by the battery-driven glass bulb full of magnesium wire.)
This is not an anachronism, but an amazing number of writers
manage to use flaunt (to show off in an ostentatious manner)
where they should have written flout (to disregard, insult,
or express contempt), typically in phrases like “Lady Sarah,
daughter of an earl, flaunted polite society in 1802 by eloping with
her coachman.” (See “elope” for the second error in
Similarly, all too many people who should know better use
straight instead of the correct strait in phrases
like “strait jacket”, “dire straits”, or
“straitened circumstances”. Strait is the French form of
strict, and the meaning is tight or narrow, as in the Strait of
Gibralter. Cf. “strait and narrow”, which almost everybody
misquotes as “straight and narrow”. The actual biblical
passage is “…strait is the gate, and narrow is the
way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find
This is a variant of fillip, first used around 1600.
However, it is not recorded between about 1700 and 1840, so
nobody could flip a coin in Georgian or Regency times. In fact, the
oed’s first example of flipping a coin was in 1879,
although to “fillip the money” dates from 1584.
I’ve seen several references to walls, etc. made from blocks
of flint. This is not an anachronism but a geological error. Flint
occurs as fist-sized nodules within chalk, and is often seen forming
the beach below a chalk cliff after erosion of the softer chalk. Flint
was used as a building material, particularly in areas where other
hard rock was not available (Norfolk, etc.), but a flint wall
is composed of many nodules cemented together.
1790 for a downy substance, 1825 for the corresponding adjective
fluffy. “Bit of fluff” to describe a young woman
didn’t appear until 1903. Generalized to anything insubstantial
(particularly journalism) in 1906. The sense of a mistake or blunder
was first recorded in 1926 in the athletic sense (fluffing a kick,
etc.) and 1937 as theatrical slang (she fluffed her lines).
1844 to mean the flap of cloth over the buttons of a pair of
trousers. In earlier use for other kinds of flaps, for instance in
connection with tents and flags.
follow the drum
The oed only has citations with the meaning “be
a soldier”, although it is commonly used in Historical fiction
as if it meant “be a soldier’s wife and go with him on
Although the practice itself might be of greater antiquity, the
word was invented in 1929. It replaced “forepleasure”,
coined by Freud (vorlust) in 1910.
1913 in the sense of to try to pin a crime on someone using false
evidence, in phrases like “They tried to frame him for the
robbery”. The variation to “frame up” was first used
in 1891. (I ran into this in a novel set in Elizabethan times, but
that doesn’t really count as an anachronism. As mentioned in the
introduction, in books set before about 1750 we expect authors to more
or less translate into modern English, with just enough old-fashioned
words to keep the flavor of the time.) Note that British “in the
frame” is different; in the criminal sense it means “under
suspicion” or “wanted” and was first used in 1941.
First recorded in the literal sense of to fray (of which it is a
relation) a rope or cloth in 1825. Not applied to people or nerves
until almost 1900.
1883. The word actually means “whim” or
“joke”, and the current use is short for “freak of
nature”, first used in 1847 as a translation of Latin lusus
Yet another modern color word. Although the flower goes back to
1753, it wasn’t used as a color name until 1923. (Fuschia-red
had been used in 1895.) See tangerine, beige, magenta, chartreuse,
cobalt, mauve, etc.
First recorded in print in 1886, although known earlier in
sailor’s slang. It has always meant just what it still does
— an indefinite name for any small mechanism or contrivance.
The origin is unknown; guesses include French gache, a lock
mechanism, or gagée, a tool.
1896 (USA), 1923 (UK).
1828 in any sense except a rope. (The relation to the current
meaning is from using a rope in a groove to seal a lid or whatever.) I
found a reference to somebody about to “burst a gasket”
from rage in a novel set in 1825. This is presumably a polite version
of “blow a gasket”, unfortunately first recorded in 1975
in the sense of losing one’s temper. (The mechanical sense goes
back to 1909, referring to the head gasket of an engine.)
In 1892 the word was generalized to mean, as the oed
succinctly says, “a quarter in a city, esp. a thickly
populated slum area, inhabited by a minority group or groups, usu. as
a result of economic or social pressures; an area, etc., occupied by
an isolated group; an isolated or segregated group, community, or
area.” Before that, the only definition was the original,
the Jewish quarter of Venice. In other words, one could not call St.
Giles in London a ghetto during the Regency. The proper term at that
time was a rookery, obligingly defined by the oed as
“a cluster of mean tenements densely populated by people of
the lowest class.” (Also see the note about
“slum” — another word which didn’t have its
current meaning in the early 19th century.)
1840, with the meaning of chilling or grisly. The noun was known
from 1786 in ghost stories set in the Near East, but only with the
Arabic definition of grave-robber or the transferred sense of
1925 to mean “cripple”. There is no relation, of
course, to gimp or gymp, a decorative cord with a wire running through
it, known since the 1660’s.
The first use to mean “beauty” was in 1937. Before
that, it meant “magic”. Glamorous was
used in 1882 to mean “magical”, but the first citation in
the current sense was in 1938, perpetrated by a Hollywood press agent.
I found a goofy grin in a novel set in 1823. Unfortunately, the
first recorded use was in 1921. (The noun “goof” came five
years earlier, in 1916, along with the variation “goofus”.
The ancestor is evidently goff, a fool, first recorded in
1570. and that came from French goffe or
Italian goffo, awkward or stupid.
1921 as US slang for a stupid person, probably from the much
earlier gooney. 1938 as labor slang for a thug hired to terrorize
workers. 1945 as a prison guard, which was the sense I found in a
novel set in 1814.
It now is a synonym of beautiful, but until the 20th century, the
only meaning was showy or extremely colorful, and it was only used to
describe inanimate objects — usually clothing but occasionally
other showy things like a gorgeous sunset or carriage. It was never
applied to people.
In 1847 it became the species name of a large ape, but the word is
almost 2,500 years older in the sense of an alleged hairy tribe of
African humans. It first appeared in Greek about 500
bce in a description of a Carthaginian voyage down the
east coast of Africa. Cf. pygmy, also from ancient
Greek, and thought to be mythological until Central Africa was
penetrated by Europeans in the 1840’s.
This term for a floor-length pendulum clock is from a popular song
written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work. Prior to that time, the style was
called a case clock or a long clock. (Accurate floor length clocks are
easier to build, since in Earth’s gravity a 40-inch pendulum has
a one-second “tick”.)
My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor.
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped, short, never to go again,
When the old man died.
These mischievous sprites were invented by the RAF in 1941 to
account for otherwise inexplicable problems with their airplanes, and
by the end of World War II they were responsible for just about
anything going wrong anywhere. The explanations for the word all
assume a strong connection with Fremlin’s Beer.
1839, as a back-formation from gridiron. Note that a gridiron has
nothing to do with grid or iron — it started life as
“gredile”, i.e, “griddle”, and the first
syllable is a perversion of grate.
It has meant to grasp or seize since the time of Beowulf (it is
the same word as grope and grip), but it has meant “to
complain” only since 1932. This came from a sense of
“afflict” or “distress” that goes back to
About 1830 in the current sense, and only in America. In England,
it meant an establishment serving liquor — “He staggered
home from the grocery.” This definition also lasted in the
United States well into the 20th century. Previously the word was an
abstract noun, as the form implies, meaning the goods sold by a
grocer. Phrases like “She went to the village and spent ten
pounds on grocery” or “The cook carried the grocery into
the kitchen” were common. (The collective sense has now been
replaced by the plural “groceries”.)
1740, when Admiral Vernon, whose nickname was “Old
Grog” from his grosgrain cloak, ordered that a sailor’s
ration of alcohol, previously straight rum or whiskey, would
henceforth be diluted 50–50 with water. The unhappy seamen
immediately dubbed the mixture “grog”. The generalized
sense of groggy, unsteady or tottering, didn’t appear until 1828
(applied to horses) and 1832 (people). (George Washington’s
Mount Vernon estate was named for the admiral, by the way.
Washington’s brother had served with him.)
The current sense of a concentrated collection of objects
—group of people, rock group — was unknown until 1748.
The only sense before then was as an artistic term for a center of
interest in a painting, borrowed from Italian. (In English it was
still spelled the Italian way, groupe, until the mid-19th
As a verb, to grumble, this is army slang of 1887. The
oed’s first two citations are both from Kipling.
The origin is unknown, except that it’s unrelated to the bird,
which is known from 1531.
1830 as a part of a gun. 1876 as a metaphor — a
hair-trigger temper, etc.
Both this and pint-sized had only their literal senses (half-pint
bottles, etc.) until the 1920’s, when they were generalized to
“small”, particularly referring to a child or undersized
A unit of area measure (equivalent to 2.3 acres) established as
part of the metric system during the French Revolution and first
mentioned in English in 1810. An are is a hundred square
meters, and a hectare is a hundred ares, or
104m2. Put another way, it’s the area of
a square 100 meters on a side.
1883, suggested by the Bell Telephone Company as the proper way to
answer their new-fangled telephone. (The telephone presented a
problem for 19th-century etiquette, since it might require a person to
speak to someone to whom he or she had not been properly introduced.)
At least until the 1930’s, the British usually answered the
phone by giving the telephone number.
1823 with the meaning “cheerful”; the current
definition of “extremely funny” is not recorded until
1883. Somewhat earlier, it had been used literally for the rear
sight of a rifle. Foresight, however, dates from the fifteenth
century. This antiquity could have been predicted from the fact that
English has “foresee” but not “hindsee”,
despite the fact that self-righteous people having been saying
“I told you so!” since speech was invented.
In addition to the children’s toy, it was the name of a
precursor of the bicycle, propelled by pushing the feet on the ground,
invented in 1819. I found one in a novel set during the Napoleonic
As a verb, to pawn, it’s American slang from 1878.
1773 as an adjective, translating German heimweh.
(“Homesick-feelingly” is somewhat earlier — German
1851 in the United States. Not recorded in Britain until 1920.
1892, in Krafft-Ebing. See masochism, sadism, etc.
Before the 20th century, this had two other meanings: It meant a
hypocrite who overdid his or her “concern” for humanity in
a showy manner, and it also meant a Unitarian, i.e., one who believed
that Jesus was an ordinary human.
Clear back to Old English, a hurdle was a wickerwork barrier
— it’s related to “crate” and
“grate”. However, the verb (to jump over) and the noun
“hurdler“ weren’t created until 1897, from a hurdle
race, where hurdles (barriers) were placed in the path of a human or
equine runner. There has been vast confusion between hurdle, hurtle,
and hurl, but they are unrelated to each other. (Hurtle is from
“hurt” — originally to run into.)
As a verb, this didn’t acquire its modern meaning of to
collide until 1916. Before that, it meant to press against, as in an
impacted wisdom tooth. (It’s the past participle of
“impinge”.) The noun, used in constructions like
“Her blue eyes made an immediate impact”, is unknown
before 1946. (Cf. the much earlier to impress,
originally to mark with a stamp, with exactly the same change of
1826, in a sardonic description: “He possessed also the
singular faculty of being able to improvise quotations.” The
word is in-pro-vid, to not see ahead.
in touch [with]
1884 in the sense of “in close association” or
“in communication”. The phrase was used earlier in a
literal sense by the military — “in touch” and
“out of touch” referred to being within arm’s length
of another soldier. Cf. “to contact”.
Borrowed from French in 1848 to mean an artless young girl,
although the adjective ingenuous (open, frank, or
innocent) dates back to 1598 in English. The latter was borrowed
straight from Latin, as seen in the pronunciation, compared to the
French “ahnzhaynee” pronunciation of the former, now
corrupted to “ahnzhenoo”. The main purpose of
“ingenuous”, of course, is to cause confusion with
ingenious — ultimately they are both from the
Latin for “inborn quality”.
Cf. naïve, which also means that with which one
is born, i.e., that which is native, Latin natus, and compare
the phrases “born yesterday” and “wet behind the
ears”, the latter from the image of a mother animal licking its
First used in the title of the CIA in 1951. “Intelligence
office” goes back to the 17th century, though, in the same
About 1880, borrowed from the nickname of a hard-nosed Spanish
political party of the time, Los Intransigentes, “The
1838, although “ire” was first used in 1300.
As a symbol of seclusion from real life, 1837 in French (tour
d’ivoire) and 1911 in English.
Although the poem “And did these feet in ancient time”
was written by William Blake in 1804, nobody sang it until 1916 when
it was set to music as an idealistic World War I rallying song. (Note
it was sung at the funeral service in the movie Chariots of
Fire, a phrase taken from the
poem. Also note that in 1804 Blake was already taking up battle
against England’s “dark satanic mills”. Cf. this painting, showing a pleasant
Shropshire scene in 1801.)
Nobody jiggled until 1836. Both this and “jigsaw” are
from jig, the lively dance, extended to the idea of “rapidly
bouncing up and down”.
The saw itself, 1873. Jigsaw puzzles (and the extended sense of
anything in small irregular pieces), 1909. Before being motorized,
jigsaws were operated by a foot treadle or bicycle-style pedals, which
probably helped the meaning.
1884 in the current sense of discarded materials of little or no
use. Before that, it was strictly a nautical term for an old or
inferior rope or cable. As late as 1900, a junk dealer handled marine
stores. The drug use of junk and junkie date to the 1920’s,
while junk food came along in 1972. (In 2010 it seems to have acquired
the additional meaning of the genitals, in discussions of intrusive
airport security patdowns.)
By the way, it is very possible that ”junk food” came from
the rope sense. About 1760 sailors started calling their salt beef
“junk”, presumably because they regarded it as harder to
chew and less nutritious than the equivalent amount of old rope. If so
then junk mail is only a cousin of junk food.
Originally a US trade mark, spelled as kerocene in the 1854 patent
and re-spelled to kerosene in 1858. In the early 20th century,
scientific societies decided that it really should be
“kerosine” to match other chemical names like gasoline,
but the general public has paid no attention.
key [thrown away]
Surprisingly, given the vivid image, to lock up something or
someone and throw away the key isn’t recorded until 1867.
Kick up ones heels
In Georgian and Regency times, this meant to drop dead. It was the
same image as “bite the dust”, q.v., but it implied
falling backward instead of forward. The meaning of “enjoy
oneself”, with an image of vigorous dancing, didn’t come
about until almost 1900.
Until about 1850, this only meant stealing a child (as the name
implies) or other person to sell into servitude or slavery, usually by
selling them as an indentured servant to America, but occasionally it
was used for what is now called “shanghaiing” (q.v.) a
seaman. Kidnapping a person and holding them for ransom is a
20th-century industry. The older and more correct term was
A medical term for the patellar reflex in 1876. Not used
metaphorically (knee-jerk reaction, knee-jerk emotion) until 1963
— “knee-jerk liberal”, in fact.
1869. For the previous five hundred years, the body part in
question had been a knee pan.
1881 as a feminine undergarment. This is a short form of
knickerbockers, first recorded as an item of men’s clothing
(i.e., loose britches) in 1859. (Knickerbocker was used from 1831 to
refer to a resident of New York, particularly one descended from the
original Dutch settlers, from Washington Irving’s popular
History of New York by “Deitrich
Knickerbocker”. The clothing sense came from the
book’s illustrations showing the Dutch in exaggerated baggy
1889 as a helpless person in general. It had been stock exchange
slang for a bankrupt from 1761. Other “useless” or
“helpless” usages include a defeated office-holder (since
1863), and naval slang for a ship with no means of propulsion (in
1876). All these, of course, are from the literal sense of a bird with
a broken wing.
Coined in 1885 by a German physician from Latin
lana-oleum, wool oil. (Vaseline was trademarked in
1872 as an unlikely mixture of German wasser, water, Greek
elaion, oil, and the Latin -inus, “from”
or “of the nature of” in chemical names and elsewhere. Cf.
codeine, atropine, gasoline, etc.)
This was the usual name for the “Lords of Appeal in
Ordinary”, created by the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876.
They were appointed from the senior Judiciary, and were life peers
with the rank of baron. They sat in Parliament and could vote on any
issue not bearing on their official duties. Originally there were two,
gradually increased to twelve. In October, 2009 the office ceased to
exist, and the Law Lords became the judges of the new Supreme Court of
the United Kingdom. They are now excluded from Parliament unless they
retire from the bench.
The game was invented in 1874 as an outdoor adaptation of tennis,
which was played on a special indoor court. Since courts were rare and
expensive (today there are less than 50 in the entire world), tennis
was strictly a game for aristocrats. Lawn tennis caught on instantly,
and in just a few years “tennis” meant the outdoor sport
and the prior game had to be called “real tennis” (aka
royal tennis) to distinguish it.
Sigh… I just read a novel describing people watching a lawn
tennis match at Wimbledon in 1816! (The Wimbledon club was
founded in 1868 as the private All England Croquet Club; in 1875 one
lawn was set aside for tennis. The official name of the club is still
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club even though all
facilities are now devoted to tennis. The words “Wimbledon
Championship” or “Wimbledon Tournament” are
incorrect; the event is the “All England Lawn Tennis
Championships”, shortened to “The Championships,
1867 in the current sense of a small folded piece of paper. Before
that, as one might expect, it had meant a small [green] leaf.
1920. See “trapeze”.
This wasn’t used as a synonym for “an untouchable
person” until the mid-20th century. Before that (from 1387), it
was a person suffering from the disease, and before that
(from 1250), the disease itself. (This transfer of disease name to a
patient is unique, presumably because the /-er/ ending was mistaken as
an agent form, but this didn’t happen to “cancer”.)
1890. Before then, female homosexuality was called tribadism, from
an Indo-European root that meant to rub. (Sapphist is even newer
— 1902.) The poet Sappho of Lesbos was awarded two different
terms for her alleged preferences a couple of thousand years after her
This term for a prehistoric line connecting two geographical
points originated in 1922 in a book called Early English
Trackways. As indicated by the title, leys were originally just
prehistoric pathways with no supernatural significance; they
were’t regarded as magical until mentioned in a book about
Atlantis in 1969. The explanatory “ley line” wasn’t
used until 1972. (The word is an alternate spelling of
This ugly but useful back-formation from “liaison” was
perpetrated by the British military in 1916.
The intense lime light was invented in 1826. The word was not used
figuratively to mean “center of attention” until 1877.
1896, unless you mean the city in Ireland.
line of fire [of a gun]
1835 as “linen garment” in general; 1850 as
First mentioned in an 1880 catalog of makeup necessities (along
with burnt cork) for “Negro” Minstrels. Apparently not
used by females until 1922 — before that, a “rouge
pot” was a common beauty accessory.
’ll, ’d, and n’t contractions
I’ll and you’ll were known from the time of
Shakespeare, but other contractions of that form were unknown in
print before the 1880’s, when they’ll, that’ll,
etc. began to appear. Ditto with hadn’t, didn’t, etc. Note
a very common technique in historical novels is for the author to
suggest archaic speech by not using contractions even in casual
conversation — for example, “Did he not remove his
coat?“ instead of “Didn’t he remove his coat?“
or “I shall get it,“ instead of “I’ll get
Both 1838 in the sense of a person who wastes time or the inaction
itself. The Loafer shoe was a originally a trademark, registered in
Coined in 1879. Speaking about the logistics of Waterloo is
therefore a bad idea.
Applied to a human couple and not real birds, 1911.
Defined as a “double chair” in 1904. (That was a new
meaning for “double chair” also, which before 1904 only
meant a light pleasure carriage.)
First used as an abbreviation for “luncheon” in 1829.
The earlier definition was “bunch” or “lump”.
The original meaning, going back to Latin luridus, was
“wan, sickly, pale yellow”. Somehow this developed a
second sense of “glowing redly”, as in a lurid sky at
sunset. From there it came to mean “ominous” or
“threatening”, which was the only sense until 1911, when
it was generalized to sensational, gaudy or extremely colorful.
Therefore, reading a lurid novel in the Regency is contraindicated.
(C.f. terrific, frightfully, and several other words where
“frightening” changed to a positive sense.
1840 for danse macabre, the dance of death, from French.
Not generalized to “horrible” or “repulsive”
and moved to the normal English adjective position (a macabre book,
etc.) until 1889.
As the CEO of a whorehouse, not until 1871. Before then, the lady
in question was called a procuress or abbess.
Magenta red dye — one of the first synthetic dyes —
was invented in 1859 and named after the French victory over the
Austrians at Magenta, Italy the same year. (There is also a
Boulevard de Magenta in Paris.) Cf.
mayonnaise, named in honor of a French victory at
Port Mahon, Minorca, in 1756. This engagement led to the court-martial
and execution of the losing British admiral, Viscount Byng. This in
turn led to Voltaire’s famous comment about England, Dans ce
pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour
encourager les autres. — “In this country, it is
thought a good idea to kill an admiral now and then to encourage the
others.” The French obviously agreed with the sentiment and in
1815 executed Marshal Ney, a major hero of the Napoleonic Wars, for
treason. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba, he had sworn
allegiance to the new government of Louis XVIII, but reverted to
Napoleon’s staff during the “hundred days” and
commanded the left wing at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Many other
officers showed the same loyalty to Napoleon, but only Ney was made an
example pour encourager les autres. (Ney was completely
self-made; he enlisted in the army as a private at 18. Within nine
years he was a brigadier general; he got his marshal’s baton 8
years later, in another 3 years was created a duke, and four years
after that a prince. He was still only 46 when he was executed.)
magnetic pole, wandering
A character mentioned this in a novel set in 1820. Unfortunately,
the discovery that the magnetic poles moved relative to the
Earth’s surface was made in 1946. Even worse, the character
speculated that this wandering would turn England into a desert.
Climate change has been blamed on many things, but not the
Earth’s magnetic field!
The race was so-named at the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896.
It was generalized to “endurance contest” — marathon
dance, marathon swim, etc. — in the 1920’s.
It was marchpane (French marcepain) from
1394; English didn’t adopt the German version of the word until
1901. (The original meaning was a candy box, not the candy itself.)
1892, in the translation of Baron von Krafft-Ebing’s
Psychopathia Sexualis. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s
novels featuring sexual pleasure through humiliation (Venus in
Furs, etc.), were written in the 1870’s.
Krafft-Ebing’s pioneering treatise is also responsible for the
words sadism, necrophilia, homo-, bi-, and heterosexual, and
exhibitionist, all of which would be anachronisms before 1892. (By the
way, Krafft-Ebing ran afoul of the Catholic Church by claiming that
the desire for martyrdom was a form of masochism.)
1925. Until then, hysteria was an individual affliction, commonly
called “the vapors”. (Hysteria is derived from the Greek
word for womb — cf. hysterectomy — because originally it
was thought to be a disease of women.)
As a noun, 1876, borrowed from French (which had borrowed it from
Arabic or Hindi) along with masseur and masseuse. As a verb, 1887.
(Massage is related to Messiah, from a Semitic root which meant to
rub; “Messiah” literally means “Anointed”.)
master of ceremonies
It was “master of the ceremonies” until 1888.
Math is American and maths British as short forms of
“mathematics” as a course of study. The former term was
first recorded in 1847 as the explicit abbreviation
“math.”; it didn’t lose the period and become a
standalone word until almost 1900. The British form is found in 1911
as an abbreviation (maths.), which it lost in 1917. Both are therefore
anachronistic for Regency or early Victorian times.
Another 19th-century French color word — 1859 in this case.
Cf. beige, ecru, and
First crunched in 1897, while peach Melba was first served in
1905. Both were named for the wildly popular operatic soprano Nellie
Melba, depending if she was on or off her diet. Well, at least she was
and has remained wildly popular with audiences and critics. The term
“prima donna” wasn’t invented for her (see below)
but might as well have been; one biographical sketch says, “If a
singer’s greatness can be gauged by how detested she was by
colleagues, then Melba would undoubtedly be the greatest singer of all
time.” (Her real name was Helen Mitchell; she took her stage
name from her home town of Melbourne, Australia, and her face is even
on the Australian $100 note.)
This didn’t mean untidiness or state of confusion until the
1830’s. Before then, it only meant a dish of food. The verb to
mess up, bungle, didn’t appear until 1897. To
mess around (aimlessly waste time) dates to 1918,
although “mess about” was used in 1886 in the same sense.
(Cf. "There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much
worth doing as simply messing about in boats," from The Wind in the
Willows, 1908 .
1827 in the modern sense. See below for the earlier meaning.
This term for a very timid person comes from Caspar Milquetoast,
the “hero” of a 1930’s series of cartoons.
1845 for the modern sense of a pie filling made with spiced fruit,
etc. Before that the word only had its literal meaning of
“chopped meat”, and the pie was simply called a mince pie,
i.e., one with finely chopped ingredients. Note that the threat
“to make mincemeat of” somebody (with a sword) uses the
older sense — to turn them into hamburger.
Kissing under a mistletoe branch at Christmas is not mentioned in
print until 1820, although it’s probably a much older folk
custom. (The name of the plant is ancient, and the first element is
German mist, dung, from the belief that the plant grew from
bird droppings. The last element is Old English tan, twig.)
Like crabgrass, this is a purely American species. The
London Times, in fact, reported in 1989 that a
mockingbird had been seen (or heard) in Essex. It did not say if it
Found in a novel set in England in 1819. It’s a West African
word for magic, voodoo, or witchcraft. It was only found in Black
dialect (it’s a Gullah word, for instance) until it came into
white vocabulary in the 1920’s in the United States through its
use by blues and jazz musicians. To make matters worse, the author of
the cited novel used it to mean “courage” or
“daring”, which means it might have been a mistake for
moxie. This also would have been an anachronism;
Moxie is the tradename of a soft drink first produced in about 1880 in
New England and still sold there. It began life as a patent medicine
—Moxie Nerve Food — and was heavily promoted as a panacea
for “paralysis, softening of the brain, and nervousness”,
but the current sense of the word could just as easily describe those
who have the ability to drink the stuff. It is quite bitter, and many
people more familiar with sweet beverages think it tastes terrible.
Moon (phases of)
Strictly speaking, this is not an anachronism, because I’ve
seen the errors in modern novels too, but it’s safe to say that
modern writers are much less familiar with the sky than were our
pre-Edison ancestors. For example, I’ve encountered a
description of a full moon setting at midnight, and alternatively, of
a thin crescent high overhead in the middle of the night. Both are
geometrically impossible. A full moon must be opposite the
Sun. At midnight the Sun is directly underfoot, so at that time a full
moon must be directly overhead. Similarly, a thin crescent
must be quite near the sun in the sky; crescents are only
visible just before sunrise or after sunset, low in the eastern or
western sky, respectively. Believe it or not, I’ve also
encountered an eclipse of the Sun by a full moon! (A solar eclipse
happens when the Moon is directly between the Earth and the Sun.
Therefore the lit-up side of the moon is facing away from observers
— i.e., it can only happen at a new moon. Conversely, a lunar
eclipse can only happen at a full moon.)
HOWEVER, all bets are off if the story is set near
the North or South Pole. An eclipse of the sun at midnight or an
eclipse of the moon at noon is possible in the “Land of
the Midnight Sun” (or the “Land of the Noon
Darkness”, which nobody ever seems to mention.) For proof, see
this picture of a midnight solar eclipse as seen from
Lapland on June 1, 2011.)
This was coined in 1910 by the American Association for the Study
of the Feeble-minded, who needed a term for a person with mild mental
retardation. The root is Greek moros, foolish. Cf.
“oxymoron”, pointedly foolish, and
“sophomore”, wisely foolish.
The word was coined in the United States by Embalmers’
Monthly magazine in 1895 as a suggested replacement for
“funeral director”, itself a replacement for the ambiguous
“undertaker”, q.v. Unfortunately I found one in a novel set
in the Regency. To add insult to injury, it was used for an assistant
at a police morgue.
The “dull, ordinary” sense is not recorded until 1850.
Before that, it meant “belonging to the world” in the
senses of “not heavenly” or “not a churchman”.
It was a synonym of “secular”, which also means “of
Heyer again — not in the dictionary.
1830, which seems totally ridiculous when mythical is recorded in
1678, mythological in 1614, and mythology in 1420, but before 1830,
the noun was still the original Greek mythos. (BTW, it was
originally pronounced with a long-/I/ and accordingly often spelled
As a verb, to irritate or complain, about 1830. (It seems to be a
Scandinavian form of gnaw and was used in that sense in English
a hundred years earlier. As a broken-down horse (a different word),
not until 1930! (Before that it could be any horse, good or
bad; often used for a pony.)
1905 as an insulting term for an effeminate man. The even more
disparaging “nancy-boy” didn’t emerge until 1958.
Cf. “pansy”, another 20th century insult.
1892, in Krafft-Ebing. Cf. masochism and sadism.
As a verb (to annoy or irritate), 1881. Before that, only to
literally prick someone or something.
It was coined in French in 1808, but the first use in an
English-language document was in 1837. (“Noblesse” itself
was commonly used in English to mean “nobility” from about
1200 to 1700.)
First used to mean inquisitive in 1882. Until then, it meant (as
one might expect) having a prominent nose. Cf. Old Nosey, a common
nickname of the Duke of Wellington. (This is another
“soft anachronism”, since the verb to nose (nose around,
nose out, etc.) is hundreds of years older, from the behavior of
dogs.) PS - Wellington didn’t just have a beak when he was an
old man. Here’s a portrait of him at about the
time of Waterloo.
Even though Jane Austen’s novels and Walter Scott’s
Waverly stories of the Scottish border were indeed
published during the 1811–1818 period of the Regency, they
were published anonymously, so nobody could curl up in the parlor
with Miss Austen’s new novel. The authorship of Austen’s
books was not known until after her death in 1818; Northanger
Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously,
in fact. The earlier books were attributed to “A Lady of
Quality”. Scott was a well-known high-brow poet who didn’t
want the literary establishment to know he also wrote popular novels
to make lots of money, and although some people suspected, he
didn’t come clean until 1827. After the first one, by
“Anonymous”, the rest were by “The Author of
Waverly”. (“Sir Walter Scott” was an
anachronism until 1820, when he received a baronetcy for his poetry.)
In its current sense of a lump of pure metal (particularly gold)
found in the earth, it is Australian slang from 1851. From 1825, it
has been Scottish or Irish for a runt, either human or animal.
I hope no author of Regencies would think of calling a girl a
“lolita”, but in fact “nymphet” is exactly as
incorrect, at least when applied to a girl and not a mythological
Greek nympha. The first application to humans was by Nabokov
in 1955 to describe the title character in his novel
Lolita. Obviously 20th-century English needed terms for a
sexually precocious young girl, since both words are now common. (In
19th-century England, the age of consent was 12, so maybe the lack
wasn’t felt as strongly until modern times.) This is really
another soft anachronism; as I mentioned elsewhere,
“nymph” used to be a British synonym for
“whore”, so a nymphet would have been understood as a
child prostitute, or at least one who was smaller than average.
Used as a synonym of until in telling time, in phrases like
“It is five minutes of twelve”, this is US, Canadian,
Scottish, and Irish. In other words, almost everywhere except
First used in 1929 for a singer “who had great difficulty
moving her vowels”. Not until 1943 to mean inappropriate or
A US military term from 1862, applied to a soldier who was off the
base without permission. The current sense of
“inaccessible” (She was Tom’s girlfriend and
therefore off limits) was not recorded until 1959, by way of the
military sense of a list of places (bars, brothels) soldiers were not
permitted to frequent.
The intransitive sense of to produce an effect (“the surgeon
operated on the wound”, or “the regiment operated against
the enemy”) goes back to around 1600, but the transitive sense
of to direct or control something (“the steam engine operated a
pump”, or “the Acme company operated a stagecoach
line”) was first used in America in 1847 and wasn’t
acceptable in England until about 1890. (The earliest citation in the
oed is from Scientific American, describing
how some new-fangled mechanism operated a fan.)
1880 in the literal musical sense. 1883 as a metaphor — to
fit together harmoniously.
1845. Until then, the flower was an orchis, with
orchidae as the Latin plural.
1936 in the modern sense. Before that it had to be qualified
— sexual or venereal orgasm. See below for more on orgasmic
1868 in the general sense of bearings or direction. Until then, it
only was a geographical term, facing eastward in a literal sense, used
of aligning churches, graves, etc. Similarly, the verb to orient (get
one’s bearings) dates from 1850.
Surprisingly, 1865 as a home for orphans. Previously used only as
an abstract noun — “He suffered orphanage at an early
age,” — and as an English legal term meaning guardianship
of an orphan. This may hold the record for anachronistic citations,
since no self-respecting Regency novel can be complete without a
bricks-and-mortar orphanage somewhere within its pages. The correct
terms at that time were “orphan asylum” or, if the
children were young enough, “foundling hospital” or
1896. I found the following laughable dialogue in a novel set in
1823. A couple has been caught in a compromising situation:
“We’ll have to marry,”, he said.
“They [her brothers] really will break my legs if I
“That’s not all they would do,” she grumbled,
“but even so, a lady might like to think she’s been chosen
for a reason other than osteopathic health.”
He blinked at her in surprise.
“I’m not stupid,” she muttered. “I’ve
“Right," he said slowly.
This is doubly hysterical, because not only is
“osteopathic” an anachronism by 70 years, but like most
medical terms the word is Greek, not Latin, and the male
character would have known it, since he allegedly had taken a first in
Sciences at Cambridge. (I’m usually willing to give authors the
benefit of the doubt, but in this case she had absolutely no excuse,
being a graduate of Harvard who attended medical school.) Being
charitable, I won’t mention that “blink” is also an
As a generic noun for someone segregated from the rest of society,
1955. It had been used earlier in reference to India, of course. Cf.
“pariah”. The identically-pronounced but completely
unrelated outcast was first recorded in 1390,
however. (An outcast is “thrown out”, but an outcaste is
Until about 1950, a rice paddy was not a field where rice
was raised. Hindi padi meant unhusked or raw rice, in phrases
like “the ship contained 200 tons of paddy.”
Fifteenth century as a flower, but 1929 in the sense of an
effeminate man. (It’s French pensee, thought, because
the flower looks like a serious face.) Nobody is quite sure how the
insult came about, since the pansy is not a delicate-looking
1835 as American slang for pantaloons. Not exported to Britain
until the 1850’s, but almost exclusively used there to mean
underpants, male or female. “He put on his pants and then his
The first unequivocal use to mean “social outcast” in
general, without reference to a particular Indian tribe and caste, was
in 1834. Cf. “outcaste”.
past [or passed] master
This looks like it should come from the medieval guilds and be
related to a masterpiece, but in fact the first use to mean
“expert” was in 1840. It had been used a century earlier
to mean the former master of a Masonic lodge. (Cf. past
Yet another color term often used anachronistically. Early 17th
century as a crayon made of ground color (from “paste”),
but not until 1899 as a adjective to mean a pale color (pastel dress,
About 1850, even though, as mentioned below, pawnbroker and the
verb to pawn are hundreds of years older. The verb to pawn was first
recorded in 1566 and the noun, something which had been pledged, in
1431. This pawn is French pan and is not related to
the chess pawn, which is a variant on peon, foot soldier, from the
ie ped- root. To “pawn” off something
on a person is also not related; that is a mistake for “palm
off”, a phrase from cheating at cards.
1908, although the verb to peeve, irritate, came slightly earlier,
in 1901. Both are back-formations from peevish,
(probably a form of Latin perversus), recorded (with the
meaning perverse or obstinate) in about 1400. The
“irritable” sense didn’t come along for another
hundred years or so.
Many now-familiar dog and cat breed names were only established in
the late 19th century, when shows were first organized under the
auspices of breeding societies. Pekingese, for instance, is first
recorded (as “Pekingese Terrier”) in 1898, Doberman in
1917, Borzoi in 1887, Dachshund in 1881, Boxer in 1934. A few names
are somewhat earlier — Fox Terrier in 1823, Dalmatian 1810,
Foxhound 1763, Pointer 1720, and Pug, 1702, for instance — and some are
ancient (Mastiff 1327, Bloodhound 1350, Bulldog 1500, Spaniel 1386,
Basset 1616.) Elsewhere I mention that Corgi is 20th century in
English. Husky is a perversion of “Eskimo”; it was
applied to people in 1743 but not to the dog until 1852. The name
Alsatian was invented by the British during World War I to avoid the
horror of calling the dog a “German Shepherd” or
“German Sheepdog”. Among cats, Angora is recorded for
1819, Persian 1821, Siamese 1871, Manx 1854, Abyssinian 1876, and so
on. Tabby began as an early 17th century term for watered silk, but
was applied to the common striped cat by 1695. Calico wasn’t
applied to a cat until 1954, almost 150 years after it had been
applied to horses with a variegated coat. Whether horses or cats, it
was an Americanism. (See the entry on calico, where I
point out the “patterned” sense is American.)
This abbreviation of perquisite didn’t appear until 1869.
(Perquisite itself was first recorded in the 15th century in English,
and the Latin law term perquisitum to 1290.)
1830 in the current sense of tenacious. The earliest record of the
word at all is only from 1826 as a botanical term, applied to plants
with leaves that didn’t fall off. It was the opposite of
deciduous, which is from de-cadere, to fall away.
This did not have the current sexual usage until the 1890’s.
Before then, a pervert was a religious apostate, a
convert seen from the rear. For example, in 1860
Thackeray called Henry of Navarre “a notorious pervert”
for his “Paris is worth a mass” conversion. In 1879 a
religious tract mentioned that Paul was regarded as a pervert by Jews
for becoming a Christian. An extreme pervert was the semi-legendary
Vicar of Bray, who was twice a Catholic and twice a Protestant in
maintaining his position during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and
Elizabeth. When accused of having no principles, he said he had one
principle, to live and die as the vicar of Bray. The song about him,
however, updates his career to the “glorious revolution”
reigns of Charles II, James II, William of Orange, and George I a
hundred and fifty years later.
1836, while pessimistic was not used until 1868. Optimist, and its
relatives are a century earlier, though. The word optimism was coined
in French to describe Leibnitz’s philosophy of “the best
of all possible worlds”, but it gained currency in English
mainly from Voltaire’s thorough demolition of the doctrine with
Candide ou l’optimisme in 1759.
1850 in its modern sense of unusual or extraordinary.
The first use to mean a boring or foolish person was in 1868, in
US slang. (A “bitter pill to swallow” is much earlier to
describe an unpleasant necessity.)
In the 17th century, it meant a boy actor. The current meaning was
recorded in 1829 in Ireland, but didn’t appear in general
English until popularized by Synge’s Playboy of the
Western World in 1907.
1950 in the current sense of a maneuver to gain advantage. For 250
years before that, it meant a hobby or pastime. (It definitely
isn’t related to “plot”, but nobody knows whether
it’s a clipped form of “employ” or not.)
plug [pull the]
I encountered “pull the plug” in the sense of
“instantly stop“ in a novel set in 1814. Of course this is
an electrical appliance metaphor, first recorded in 1930. (If the
author should try to cover themself by claiming it’s a basin or
tub metaphor, then pulling the plug would mean to instantly
begin, not end.)
Card game, 1836 in the U.S., 1855 (“pocher”) in
England. “Poker face” is recorded 1885. Cf.
euchre and bluff.
Not until 1949 in the “accentuate a division” sense.
The optical connotation, however, dates from 1811.
1844. By the way, the dance is Czech pulka, half
(presumably because of the short quick steps), not Polish. This does
not mean, however, that a polka is the same as a minuet, also named
for the short steps, or a polonaise, which does mean
First used in 1955, although atmospheric pollution dates to 1934
and pollution of rivers to 1828. Before that, the only meaning was
spiritual or moral corruption.
Australian slang for a resident of England, first recorded in
1913. It was rhyming slang; the Aussie pronunciation of pomegranate
was “pommy-grant” rhyming with “immy-grant”.
As a noun synonym for feces (horse poop, etc.), not recorded until
1937 as a childhood euphemism, along with poopy. Several hundred years
earlier as the act of farting, presumably from the sound. (To break
wind is the only verb meaning recorded in the Oxford English
1864 in the modern sense. The word was used in 1857 in its literal
Greek meaning, “description of prostitution”, in a medical
report on the plight of London streetwalkers.
About 1850 in the artistic sense, both as noun and verb. About
1840 in the sense of “pretend” — “The spy
posed as an Albanian prince.” Incidentally, the word is not
related to position. That’s a member of the
large put/place family (component, composition, …) from Latin
ponere/posit-. By the way, a poser meant a
questioner (apposer) for hundreds of years; the related sense of a
difficult question didn’t turn up until 1793.
1914 as an adjective meaning luxurious. An earlier noun posh had
the sense of a half-penny (from Romany pash, half) but that
can hardly be related. The story that it stands for “Port Out,
Starboard Home” to designate the more comfortable accomodations
on ships to and from India (i.e., the shadier, cooler side) is without
foundation, not least because for half the journey (in the southern
hemisphere), those would be the uncomfortable cabins.
Originally, this meant what is now called smallpox, first recorded
in 1476. The compounds smallpox, chickenpox, and cowpox are first
known in 1518, 1728, and 1780, respectively. After 1601, “the
pox”, without qualification, meant syphilis; it had previously
been known as “the French pox” (1503) or “the great
pox” (1529). This entry was prompted by a novel set in the 12th
century which anachronistically mentions a prostitute who
“probably had the pox”. Most authorities agree that
syphilis didn’t invade Europe until about 1500 and anyway, there
would have been no “probably” if smallpox was meant; that
was the most recognizable disease on the planet. (Since it was
only communicated person-to-person and sufferers were so obvious, it
was possible to wipe out the disease in the 20th century using
quarantine of the patient and vaccination of everyone in the
The current sense of “almost” wasn’t used until
1869. Since the mid-17th century, it had the literal meaning —
in a practical manner. (“She was practically dressed as she
walked to church at Christmas,” In other words, she wore a heavy
The current sense of practical or realistic dates only from 1853.
Before that it meant interfering, conceited, or dictatorial.
The original usage of the word was “subject to criminal
prosecution”. Cf. the presentation of a grand jury. The modern
meaning is not found until 1827.
Until 1829, this was French and meant trickery or deception. It is
Latin prae-stringere, to dazzle or blindfold, literally to
“bind beforehand”. In the early 19th century it was used
as a metaphor for the charismatic power of Napoleon. The current sense
of prestigious isn’t recorded until 1913;
before then it was only applied to jugglers and magicians. Also note
the current meaning of spellbinding, and see
It was used in its literal Italian sense of “first
lady” to refer to the leading soprano of an opera in 1768, but
it wasn’t generalized to someone who is aggressively
self-important or temperamental in other fields (male or female) until
1834. P.S. — the plural is prime donne, but this is not
often encountered because if by chance two of them should meet, one
will kill the other. Even so, there were enough of them that it became
necessary to create a double superlative — prima donna
assoluta — first used in English (not Italian!) in 1854.
C.f. drama queen, which has been a unisex term for
someone who exaggerates a minor problem since its first use in 1923.
1850, as a character in a play called, logically enough,
This clipped version of “public house” for a tavern
was recorded as underworld slang about 1860, but wasn’t fully
acceptable until 1890.
pure and simple
This may be an obvious collocation, but it is first found in an
1868 translation of Plato!
American slang from 1903.
This did not mean lustful or “horny” until 1847, and
then only in northern England — Yorkshire, etc. It didn’t
migrate south to London until the 1880’s. For the previous two
hundred years, it (as one might expect) had been purely a Scottish
word, and it meant boisterous or rude.
I read a novel set in the Regency that featured a pirate who had
been seriously injured when “slashed with a rapier”. First
of all, the rapier had not been used as a military weapon for over a
hundred years at that point. They were usually ceremonial, although in
the 18th century they were used for dueling. Secondly, nobody
ever got slashed with a rapier, because it was a pure thrusting
weapon, sharpened only at the point. Possibly the pirate had been
wounded by a sabre or cutlass instead; they were much more suitable
for close-quarters shipboard fighting.
1856. Realist was first used in 1850.
Mark Twain first used it to mean “in any event” in
1872. Prior citations only have the literal sense — “He
was regardless of his duty,“ or “I have very regardless
children.” The current usage is elliptical for “regardless
of expense” or “regardless of the consequences”, and
was regarded as an Americanism.
Not used in standard English until 1850, and even then it was
regarded as an illiterate Americanism by purists, who said it should
1840 as a proper noun (the Renaissance) to refer to the
“rebirth” of European culture around 1500. 1872 in the
generalized sense of a regeneration.
The sense of booking something in advance (“He
procured a reservation for a box at the Opera,“ or “You
must get a reservation to ensure a seat on the coach,“) is not
known before 1908.
I managed to encounter a specifically-described revolver —
“He spun the chamber, which contained a single bullet...”
— in a novel set in 1815. No, no, no. At least this pistol
wasn’t called a revolver, which was a trademark of Colt
when he patented the first practical revolving gun design in 1835.
Another Regency featured a pistol which somehow fired at least four
shots without reloading. (Cf. Hollywood westerns with six-shooters
that somehow managed to plug twenty or thirty Injuns without the
This term was not used for “a rifle regiment” during
the Napoleonic Wars. The celebrated 95th regiment was called the
“95th of foot, rifles” until 1843, when “The
Rifles” first appeared in print. They were often known as the
“Green Jackets” — because their mission was as
snipers, they wore inconspicuous uniforms with no ornamentation, and
their insignia were black cloth on green. (When first formed during
the American wars, they wore buckskin like the Indians.) Similarly,
they had no colors or drums, and normally did not fight as a regiment.
One company of the 95th was attached to each of Wellington’s
seven brigades, and it took the French a surprisingly long time to
realize that a conspicuous officer in the front lines was in serious
danger. So were sergeants — any soldier knew that killing a
senior NCO did more damage to the enemy than killing an officer. (A
musket had an effective range of 80–100 yards, while an expert
rifleman could hit his target at 300 yards or more. An ordinary
soldier did not fire his musket at a particular target, only
in the general direction of the enemy, more or less like the use of
modern assault weapons.) Note that in modern combat uniforms the
insignia are so inconspicuous that it is impossible to tell a general
from a private from more than ten or twenty feet away.
The dark green and black uniform of the 95th is quite familiar to
modern TV viewers because of the popularity of the Sharpe
series set in the Napoleonic Wars, which made Sean
Bean famous playing the title character.
As a noun, used for fireworks since 1611. (It’s named for
the shape; Italian rocca means “spindle”.) As a
verb (to soar or speed), not until 1881.
1833 as a present participle — Rabbits are rodent [gnawing]
in my garden. 1835 as a noun.
This meant “imaginative adventure story” until 1916,
when it was first used to mean “love affair”. King
Solomon’s Mines was a romance novel when published, for
instance, as were Sir Walter Scott’s stories. Roman is
the normal French word for “novel”, as in roman
à clef, literally a novel with a key [to the
characters’ real-life equivalents].
1808, a back-formation from the much older “rotation”.
1968 (small child). Never as a small dog, which I have found in
several Regency novels. For that matter, rug itself only meant
“blanket” until about 1810. (See the entry on
“snug”.) Like “blanket” itself, rug originally
meant a coarse woolen cloth; people wore blanket or rug coats in cold
1910 as a noun in English. The word really became established
during World War I, although sabotage as a verb didn’t appear
until 1918 and saboteur wasn’t used until 1921.
Although the eponymous Comte (not Marquis) de Sade died in 1814,
these terms were first used in 1892, in Krafft-Ebing. See
masochism, also named in honor of a 19th-century
author with odd tastes.
The current sense of a place for storing money or other valuables
is first recorded in 1820. For the previous 400 years, the only
meaning (as a noun) was a meat locker which kept out insects and
vermin. Safe-breaking and safe-cracking date from 1934.
I found a reference to ”the exotic settlement of San
Francisco, California” in a novel set in 1812. The presidio and
mission of San Francisco de Asis (aka Mission Dolores) were indeed
founded by the Spanish in 1776, but there was no settlement there
until the mission lands began to be privatized in 1835. The resulting
village was called Yerba Buena until the Americans renamed it to San
Francisco in 1848 when the province of Alta California was ceded by
Mexico to the United States. (The next year saw a spectacular change
in the village’s fortune, though. The population increased from
1,000 to 25,000 almost overnight as a result of the 1849 gold rush.)
In 1812, if the town had existed it would have been “San
Francisco, Mexico” or possibly “San Francisco, Alta
PS — The saint’s given name was John, not Francis.
PPS — “yerba buena” means
“mint”, the “good plant”.
1836. Of the derivatives, sanitary is first recorded in 1842,
sanitation in 1848, and sanitarium in 1851. The British euphemism
“sanitary towel” first saw print in 1881 and the US
equivalent, sanitary napkin, in 1917. (The male idea that menstruation
is unclean goes back to the Old Testament. I’m rather surprised
that feminists haven’t campaigned against this usage. Note that
Orthodox Jewish women still must take a ritual bath (a mikvah)
every month before they can resume marital relations, and in fact, the
bath is also required for any man who has merely touched a
woman during her period!)
This was purely American slang until the 20th century. The British
used the original form — saucy. Even in the US, the noun sass
(Don’t give me any sass!) is first recorded for 1835, and the
oed doesn’t have a single English quote as of 1977.
1963, both noun and verb.
This colloquial nickname for women’s underwear didn’t
show up until 1929, in the USA. Presumably the rhyme of scanty and
panty was irresistible.
1840. “Science” in the modern sense is mid-19th
century; before that it was “natural science”. A phrase
like “the conflict of science and religion” is an
anachronism before then, because Theology was a science. Darwinian
evolution and the geologists’ insistence on the multi-billion
year age of the earth were mainly responsible for this split.
Late-breaking news flash — in November, 2005,
the state of Kansas, USA, voted to redefine “science” to
again include theology and astrology, so that biblical “Creation
Science” could be taught in Kansas schoolrooms. Further
Update — in February, 2007, Kansas decreed that
theology and astrology are not sciences any more. Stay tuned
for the next election. (The 2007 definition of science is again
“a human activity of systematically seeking natural
explanations”. The 2005 definition omitted the word
As a drink (elliptical for Scotch whisky), 1895. Before that, the
stand-alone noun Scotch meant snuff.
1928, probably a back-formation from “scramble”. There
is a much older unrelated “scram” which means shrivel or
paralyze, as in “His hands were scrammed from the cold.”
The word is French for “sitting” and was used as a
synonym of “session” (legislative séance, etc.)
until the spiritualism craze of the 1850’s. Cf.
As a verb, to make a person sleepy or quiet by means of drugs,
1945. Previous uses all simply meant to calm, with no reference to
medicines. Sedative, though, dates to 1797 in the medical sense.
Sedate as an adjective — calm — is much earlier. They are
all related, of course, to the “sit” family.
1898 in the current meaning of “causing great
excitement”. The current noun usage — “Her red gown
caused a sensation,“ — is first recorded in 1864. The
literal implication of “sensation” (the operation of the
senses) is hundreds of years older, though.
Coined by Walpole in 1754, and apparantly not used by anyone else
until 1880, and that was quoting Walpole! Otherwise,
it’s a 20th-century word. Serendipitous was
first recorded in 1958 (applied to a person) and 1965 (an unexpected
1834, even though “sewer” goes back almost to 1400.
1929 as a synonym for “sexual intercourse”, as in
“have sex”, “sex before marriage”,
“great sex”, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first known
use of the word in this sense was by D.H. Lawrence. Before that, the
only noun usage was in phrases like “the female sex”.
I found this nickname for a detective used by a duchess in a
Regency novel! It is Yiddish slang (shames, synagogue
watchman) first recorded in 1925 in American detective novels. (To
compound the crime, her grace said the individual in question was
pussyfooting — see above.)
As a verb, to kidnap onto a ship bound for the Orient, 1871.
Invented in a 1940 comic book as Captain Marvel’s magic
word. Unfortunately, I found it in a novel set in 1814.
She [Who Must Be Obeyed]
This, of course, is from H. Rider Haggard’s popular and
influential 1886 novel She, but I managed to find a
reference in a novel set in 1815. The phrase is actually at least 25
years older than the novel, but that still takes it back to maybe
1860. (Haggard said that an unscrupulous housemaid had used it, with a
rag doll as a prop, to terrify him as a child.) By the way, an
excellent trivia question is, “What is the name of
She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed?” Her name is Ayesha.
The American slang for “chemise” was first used in
1837. The other “shimmy”, to shake, dates from 1919, and
is the same word. It seems to be a back-formation from a popular dance
of the time — “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate”
— which apparently was first known as the vulgar “shaking
As a verb, 1888.
This was purely a man’s name until 1849, when Charlotte
Brontë used it for the eponymous heroine of her second novel.
Shirley’s father had desperately hoped for a son but wound up
with only a daughter, so he gave her the name he had intended for the
boy. The novel was popular enough that Shirley became established as a
female name and has remained so. (It started life as a family name
— either “shire meadow“ or “bright
meadow”. The best-known fictional character surnamed Shirley is
undoubtedly Anne Shirley, the most famous resident of Green Gables.)
Technically, Shirley was Brontë’s first novel; the
title page of Jane Eyre called that book an
“autobiography” because it was written as a first-person
narrative of which Brontë was allegedly only the editor.
1862 in the modern sense. In 1832 it was used as the name of an
inferior kind of cloth.
The instrument is known from 1589 (and the earlier version, a
shoeing-horn, from 1440). Surprisingly, the somewhat
obvious verbal sense of forcing something other than a foot into an
inadequate space did not appear until 1927 —“He shoehorned
himself into a car seat.”
An American term first recorded in 1828. The British didn’t
adopt the word until maybe 1850. The earlier term was “fowling
piece‘. Nobody seems to have required a shotgun wedding until
1793 in the current sense. “Show away” is recorded
almost fifty years earlier, with the same meaning.
A Shrapnel’s Shell (named for the inventor) was an explosive
shell packed with bullets, invented in the Napoleonic wars. It was
also known as “case shot”. The extended sense of
“shell fragment”, in phrases like “He received some
shrapnel in his leg,“ did not come into use until 1940. To quote
Winston Churchill: “…great numbers of shell splinters
usually described most erroneously as shrapnel, will be falling in the
As an order to stop talking, 1840.
In Old English this meant any blood relative, but it dropped out
of use in the Middle Ages. The term was re-acquired by early
20th-century anthropologists with a new specific definition of
“one of the children of the same parents”. The simple
sib stayed in English with the meaning of
“relative” in general — cf. gossip,
which is god-sib, i.e., godparent.
As a verb meaning to slide (the coach skidded off the road) not
until 1838. The original sense was a strip of wood placed underneath
something, so the word is related to a ski. In the
late 19th century, a skid road was a pathway for sliding logs
downhill. The current sense of “skid row” as a rundown
area full of alcoholics and other derelicts seems to be from the term
being used in Seattle for the area where the loggers congregated while
in town, complete with the bars, whorehouses, pawnshops, and cheap
rooms necessary for their comfort.
This was originally an adjective meaning small or meager, but it
didn’t turn into a verb (Lord Whazzit skimped on the household
funds) until 1879. Scrimp, which is the same word,
was used as a verb by 1773, however, and shrimp (also
the same word) goes back to the middle ages as both seafood and small
1838 —skin-tight pantaloons and so on. This certainly looks
like a “soft anachronism”, since it would have been
understood at a much earlier date. BTW, skinny to
mean slim or scrawny is first found in Shakespeare. Presumably the
sense was “having no flesh”. C.f. skin-and-bone(s), which
goes clear back to about 1450. In the slang sense of the “real
deal” (She told me the skinny about her friend) not until 1938
and of unknown origin.
1902 as a maid of all work. 1932 as slang for underwear.
The current sense of sordid, depraved, or disreputable only dates
from 1941. The corresponding noun, sleaze, didn’t appear until
1967 when someone described Soho as having “brazen
sleaze”. For the previous 300 years sleazy had been used to
describe a thin or weak fabric, quickly generalized to anything
insubstantial or worthless. The oed has a quotation from
1648 about someone’s “vain and sleasy opinions about
1849. Also see catapult above.
1863 as an untidy person. The word is actually Gaelic for soft mud
or ooze, borrowed into English in 1780 in that sense — I stepped
into some slob on the seashore. It’s not related to
slobber, known in English since about 1440. That one
is Germanic, probably related to slaver.
1845 in the current sense of a lower-class district. 1825 as a
single dwelling, a rear tenement, often in the phrase
“back-slum”. Not until 1860 as a verb (“go
The modern sense of slyly insinuating or derogatory dates from
1933. The word first appeared in 1859 with the meaning of
“worthless” or “counterfeit”. An intermediate
usage was slippery or cunning.
1911 in the current sense of one who considers himself superior
and sneers at the “lower classes”. This was a complete
reversal of meaning, because originally the word meant a
member of the lower classes — it was the opposite of
“nob”, a wealthy person. The change began with Thackeray
using it in the sense of “vulgar social climber” in the
1840’s, and of course those who are clawing their way up a
ladder tend to spend a good deal of time stomping on the fingers of
those on the next rung below them. (“Nob” might be a
clipped form of “noble”; if not, the origin is unknown.
Cf. “nib” (“his nibs”) in the same sense.)
1832 as a verb, 1891 as a noun. An Americanism until about 1860.
1895 in the sense “participate in social activities”.
Before that, it meant to make fit for society — “You
should socialize that little brat before allowing him to appear in
public; a few beatings should do the trick.”
The sense of “polite society” or “good
society” in phrases like “he was often seen in
society” didn’t appear until 1823.
As applied to a person, this is recorded in 1855 with the meaning
of “sodomite”. It didn’t develop into a term of
general abuse (more or less equivalent to “bastard”) until
the 1930’s, in such constructions as “poor auld sod”
or “lucky sod”.
This one-pound (20 shilling) gold coin was first minted in 1817,
replacing the earlier guinea, whose value originally varied with the
price of gold but which became standardized as 21 shillings. Giving
somebody a sovereign on the day of Waterloo is therefore a no-no.
Actually, I recently read a historical novel which featured a bag of
sovereigns in 1748, a seventy-year anachronism. On the other hand,
silver dollars (q.v.) had been common since about 1560. (The Royal
Mint still produces sovereigns even today.) Oh yes, I also
ran into a novel that featured a silver sovereign, a totally
nonexistant coin. (In the story, a person used the coin to pay for a
one-mile taxi fare, rather extravagant considering that in Regency
times a sovereign would be worth at least a hundred dollars in
Note that guineas were quite rare during the Napoleonic Wars, too. The
war had caused the price of gold to rise above the face value of the
coin, so that most of them had been melted down to bullion or used to
pay for smuggled goods. The wartime English economy ran on paper
money. Unlike the French, Wellington’s army in the Peninsula
insisted on paying for supplies. The British government minted an
issue of guineas during the war specifically for army use, because the
Spanish and Basques would only take gold and silver — British
banknotes would be worthless if the French won — and the mint
lost its shirt on the deal because it had to buy the gold on the open
market for more than the coins’ face value.
1821 in the sense of a thin piece of wood used to light a candle
or pipe. (Spill, spile and speel had all
specifically meant “splinter” since about 1300; cf. the
game of spillikins, known from 1734.) Not until 1849 as a twist of
paper. The sense of a fall — he took a spill from his horse
— is first recorded in 1845. (The verb to spill had meant kill
or destroy since Old English — the experts insist it’s
unrelated to spoil, but the general public used the
two words interchangably for hundreds of years. Note that spoilsport
is a synonym of killjoy.)
The modern sense of both this word and spiritualist date from the
early 1850’s, when the idea of communicating with the dead via a
medium became a large fad. Before that, the words only had a
philosophical and religious sense, describing a belief in the
importance of the soul compared to the body. Cf. seance.
1904. Cf. “limelight”.
Yet another Heyerism, at least as applied to the Regency. The
first recorded use of the phrase was by Hardy in 1922, and the second
as the title of one of Heyer’s novels. “Sprigged
muslin” was the 19th-century name of the cloth.
1970 in the sense of erotic or “hot” — Lord
Evans was discovered in a steamy embrace with Miss Jones.
steeple [the hands]
The noun goes back to 1000 CE (derived from the adjective
steep), but the verb meaning to place the hands
together in a vertical position was first used in 1968. Before that,
to steeple only had the literal sense — to place a bell or
prisoner in a tower.
1855 for an earthenware beer mug. Cf. stoneware.
stub [a toe]
1848 as an Americanism; not adopted in Britain until the 20th
David Copperfield, in 1849, has the first recorded
use with the meaning of first-rate or outstanding. Before then, it
only had the etymological sense of causing unconsciousness. Cf.
astounding and astonishing; all three are the same metaphor, from
Latin ex-tonare, to strike with a thunderbolt.
I ran into a novel set in 1829 where the protagonist was an expert
in translating Sumerian hieroglyphic scrolls. This is so wrong it
boggles the mind — four consecutive erroneous words! (a) The
word “Sumerian” wasn’t invented until 1869, (b) The
language wasn’t translated until the early 20th century, (c) the
language was written in cuneiform, not hieroglyphics, and given that
fact, (d) it was written on clay tablets, not on scrolls.
This is another very common word I can find in many stories.
Unfortunately, it didn’t exist until about 1830 in any noun
sense except the original one of a flexible tree branch. The verb
sense of “to change” appeared about 1850 — before
that its only use was to hit with a switch. (The modern usages came by
way of railroad slang for a “branch” track. Cf.
“asleep at the switch”, etc. Switch on/off arrived in the
late 19th century with electricity.)
1842 (fruit), 1899 (color). Previously only with a capital letter
as a resident or product of Tangier. The fruit was a Tangerine orange,
but even that is only recorded for 1841.
1887 to mean “prostitute”, from an earlier sense
(1864) of “attractive woman” or “sweetheart”.
Before 1864, it is an anachronism in any sense except pastry. (Note
that “whore” originally meant “sweetheart”,
Both are 20th-century coinages, although “teen” or
“teens” as a noun (“once into their teens, girls
think they will never get married,“) goes back at least to 1673.
See lawn tennis.
1930 in the current sense of great or wonderful. Before that it
had the literal sense of inspiring terror, although during the 19th
century it also had the milder sense of very severe or excessive. Note
that terrific is the adjective form of terrify,
which, like terrible, has retained the original
thick on the ground
1955 as an adjective describing a casual or understated remark
(throwaway line, throwaway comment). First seen in a literal sense as
“throwaway price” in 1924 as a synonym of giveaway. As a
noun from 1903 to describe a pamphlet handed out on the street.
1839 in its current meaning. Before that, the term was only used
in India (thuggee), and referred to a religious sect whose
members believed in strangling strangers as an offering to the god.
This slang term for a chamber pot was first recorded as an
Americanism in 1890. Cf. “thunderbox” for a portable
commode, first noted in 1939.
In the sense of “heart”, US slang from 1930.
As an expression of surprise (borrowed from French), once again a
Georgette Heyer usage.
1825 in the sense of a young groom riding on the back of a
carriage. Georgian and Regency use is from Heyer.
The first recorded use to mean “warm” was only in
1961. Before that, it meant food or drink which had a slightly burnt
flavor. “Warm [or hot] as a toast” goes back to the Middle
It allegedly means the sophistication gained through spending a
season in London, but I can find no record at all of this phrase
before its use by Heyer — I have a nasty suspicion she made it
As a verb, the sense of “to exchange” is first
recorded in 1863. Before that it meant buy or sell (still the stock
market meaning), and before that it was a synonym of
1861, in a description of the performance of Jules
Leotard, the daring young man who invented the flying trapeze act,
had a song written about him, and joined Amelia Bloomer, Dietrich
Knickerbocker, Mae West, Lords Cardigan, Spencer, and Wellington, and
of course Daisy Dukes in being known for a characteristic garment.
Unfortunately, I found a description of a flying trapeze act at
Astley’s Circus in a novel set in 1815. (Trapezium and
trapezoid, the geometrical sources of the French word, go clear back
to Euclid, though.)
This had meant “bloody wound” since ancient Greek, but
it wasn’t applied to mental shock or distress until 1894 —
1913 as a game. Quite a bit older in the literal sense, of course.
1834 in the sense of a group of American Indians under a chief.
Before that, they were called bands, races, etc.
Borrowed from Scandinavian mythology in 1851. A different word
than the much older troll, to drag.
1923, in Time magazine. This an obvious “soft
anachronism”, since “trouble” itself goes back to
the Middle Ages, as do usages like “in trouble” and
“troublesome”. “In trouble” to mean
inconveniently pregnant was first used in 1891 by Hardy in Tess
of the d’Urbervilles.
1953 in the sense of “territory”, as a gang’s
turf. “On the turf” had been used from the 1860’s
for a prostitute walking the streets, and “The Turf” as
metonymy for “the horse racing world” was first used in
1831. It was originally a trademark, and it seems to be a mistake
for tweel, the Scottish form of twill,
modified under the influence of the Scottish river. (Twill is from
Latin twi-licium, two threads.
First recorded in print in 1925, but it was Oxford slang from
about 1911, evidently formed from the name of a certain objectionable
student named T.W. Earp. (The authority for this is J.R.R. Tolkien,
one of Earp’s classmates. Another classmate called Earp
“the last of the aesthetes”.)
American slang from 1802 for a quarter of a dollar, but not used
for something relatively worthless (two-bit whore, two-bit hotel)
until 1932, and not recorded in British speech until 1978. (The
meaning comes from the fact that American dollars had the same value
as Spanish dollars or pesos, called “pieces of eight”
because they were worth eight reales.)
The word meant “bitch” or “mongrel” from
the 1300’s. It wasn’t transferred from canines to small
children until 1902.
The current meaning of a general class isn’t recorded until
1843. For the preceding 400 years, it meant an emblem or symbol, from
a root that meant to strike or stamp. This usage is in printing type
and the typewriter, as well as tympani.
“Typical” in the modern sense dates from 1850. Cf.
character, from the “carve” root, also
first used to mean “identifying mark”.
Hans Christian Anderson’s tales (Ugly Duckling, Little Match
Girl, Little Mermaid, Emperor’s New Clothes, etc.) were
not traditional folk tales. He wrote them from scratch in the
1830’s and 1840’s, and they were translated into English
This non-committal nasal for “yes” is strictly US and
dates from 1924, as does its opposite, uh-uh. Neither are to
be confused with a third 20th-century grunt, uh-oh, a milder
version of “oh shit!”
1918, from a Swedish word for the lowest class of society.
1887. The contrasting top dog isn’t
recorded until 1900. Both were first used allegorically (people,
political parties, etc.) and not about actual fighting dogs.
1872. The synonymous underclothing was first
recorded in 1835.
1824 for the paper variety. They are thus earlier than Christmas
cards, which didn’t come into fashion until the 1860’s.
The proper form is velours, the French word for velvet.
English didn’t lop off the /S/ to form a false singular until
well into the 20th century. Cf. Velcro®, which is French
velours croché, hooked velvet.
As a verb meaning to carefully examine or verify, this was first
recorded in 1904. (It is racing slang, from the idea of having a
veterinarian check the soundness of a horse.)
The meaning of “lively” arose about 1867. Before that,
the adjective only had its literal sense of vibrating or shaking.
From 1856 to describe law enforcement in the US wild west,
borrowed from Spanish. The more normal term for the organization was a
“vigilance committee”, recorded in 1858, with an member
thereof being a “vigilance man”. The first unequivocal use
of vigilante to describe happenings in Britain was 1948, written in
1840 as a Scandinavian marauder. The correct
vikingr was recorded in 1807. In Old Norse and
Icelandic, “viking” meant raiding or piracy, while a
“vikingr” was an individual. (In other words, a vikingr
would get in his boat and go viking.)
This was not applied to the female form (a voluptous figure) until
1839. Before that, it strictly meant “pleasure-loving”.
Although Regency gamblers regularly hand out vowels — that
is, IOU notes — that sense is not in the dictionary. I had
assumed this was Georgette Heyer again, since she used the word
regularly. However, this is yet another term (cf. bran-faced, bite the
bullet) which is in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar
Tongue. Obviously Ms Heyer owned a copy and the editors of the
Oxford English Dictionary do not.
1900 in the sense of one who obtains sexual gratification through
viewing, and 1956 in the generalized sense of an observer.
1820 to describe a woman who is not dancing. Much earlier as a
War of the Roses
This term was invented by Sir Walter Scott about 1815, 350 years
after the conflict itself.
A widgeon is a kind of wild duck, but it was also used for a silly
or clueless person, from the alleged behavior of the bird. Cf.
“goose”,“gull”, and maybe “booby”,
applied to a person. (Spanish bobo meant both
“fool” and “gannet”, and it isn’t known
which sense is earlier.) Unfortunately, the last known
instance of calling someone a widgeon was in 1741. Heyer used it
frequently in her Regency novels, though, and of course everybody else
has followed suit. (There is a separate old word pigwiggen a
fairy or dwarf, generalized to something small or insignificant, which
was occasionally modified to “pigwidgeon”. That word has
survived to modern times, in phrases like a “pigwidgeon
During the Georgian and Regency period, this was purely an
American word. Examples in British speech don’t appear until
almost 1860. It is probably from the much earlier welk, to
wither or fade.
This, usually spelled “yan”, is the Chinese word for
opium, also used for the craving for the drug. It first made it into
English in 1876 as “yin” or “ying” before
everyone settled on “yen” about 1910. Western addicts
adopted several Chinese terms in connection with the practice —
“yen hop” for an opium pipe, “yen pok”, a pill
ready to be smoked or eaten, “yen shi” the ashes, and so
on. No relation to the Japanese coin.
1875 as a phonetic shortening of German Jüdisch
Deutsch, Jewish-German, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews. Yid,
now an offensive term for a Jew, is a back-formation, by analogy with
Jewish, Polish, Kurdish, Danish, etc., and is recorded a year earlier.
(That 1874 reference wasn’t intended as an insult; the author
specifically said “Yid and Yidden, the Jewish people,
are in common use among the Jews.” Cf. the casual
“Brit” from British.) I suppose we should be grateful that
English is not yet blessed with “horserad”, a pungent
plant, “rubb”, junk, “garn”, a decoration, and
“varn”, a shiny coating.
The word doesn’t appear until 1940, with a meaning of shoot
About 1875 as either a sound or a quick movement (e.g., zipping
right along). The clothing Zipper was a trademark of 1923.
Just to balance the above list of anachronisms, here are several
modern-looking words which were in use at an earlier date than one
might suspect. All these citations are for the current meaning of
the word; sometimes a different sense existed even earlier.
Mentioned as a treatment for gout in a medical text of 1684.
1598, in the same sentence as the first recorded use of
1593. (See psychology for another early word with which it was
1751 for both the noun and the adjective. Septic itself (septic
throat, septic wound) was borrowed from Greek about 1600.
1678 in the modern sense of the dissection of a corpse for medical
investigation, and 1651 in the original Greek sense of “see for
oneself” — auto (self) + ops (eye).
(of a house) 1659.
Both words were well-known in English by 1750. Spears and rocks
are ballistic (thrown) missiles.
1703. Also seen as the clipped “bam” or
“bamb” in the 18th and 19th centuries.
About 1730 for an outdoor feast where a whole animal was roasted.
Also applied to the guest of honor — i.e., the animal so
roasted. Thus both “Let us have a barbecue in the back yard for
our friends,“ and “This barbecue tastes wonderful,“
are legitimate 18th century usages.
1744. Also mentioned by Jane Austen. (The rules have changed over
time, so the original game of baseball was probably similar to modern
bite the dust
In ancient Greek, this was a favorite cliché of Homer. The
phrases “bite the ground”, “bite the sand”,
and/or “bite the dust” have been used in almost every
English translation of the Iliad since 1697. “Lick
the dust” is in the Bible.
1598, along with anorexia.
1676 as a lightly-built house or summerhouse. Early references, of
course, are to India (it’s Hindi bangla, “of
Bengal”), but the name was also used for similar one-story
This goes back before 1600. It’s a Greek form of the same
word that’s in English canker and Latin
cancer. Its tumorous cousins sarcoma
(fleshy growth), and melanoma (black growth) date to
the early 19th century, though. Lymphoma didn’t
appear in the medical record until almost 1900.
The connection with pretty girls was first recorded in 1662! (It
seems to have started as a pun involving a tart, which as mentioned
meant a pretty girl or sweetheart at the time.)
Che sera sera
1558, in Marlowe’s Faustus. (That version is
Italian; the 1950’s popular song changed it to French Que
sera sera. Either way, it’s “What will be will
About 1400. (It’s in a version of Morte Arthur
— “Charottez [chariots] chokkefulle charegyde with
golde.”) “Chock” is an alternative spelling of
Most people think these are Victorian, but the first mention of a
Christmas tree being set up in England was in 1789. They remained a
curiosity and didn’t become fashionable in imitation of the
German custom until mid-19th century, though.
The chub is a notably fat fish, known by that name since 1496.
Chubby has been applied to stocky or fat humans since 1611.
[the] coast is clear
This metaphor for “it is safe to proceed” goes back to
at least 1530. It’s also in Shakespeare.
In the sense “achieve sexual orgasm” or
“ejaculate”, this looks like modern vulgar slang, but it
was first used with that meaning about 1650.
This word is strongly associated with the Soviet Union, but it is
first recorded in English about 1400, from Latin
commissarius. It’s the same word as a commissary or
commissioner, namely a delegate or one entrusted (commissioned) with a
certain task. Cf. commit, committee, etc.
corned beef hash
1621 for corned (i.e., salted) beef, and 1662 for hash as a dish
of cut-up meat.
A slang verb for “to die” dating back to at least
1812, from the sound of a death rattle. It soon became transitive with
the meaning to murder or to hang — “A traveler was croaked
on the moor last night” or “The authorities croaked the
1626 as an adjective meaning “cleansing”, and 1676 as
a noun, a cleansing agent or soap.
Despite the “look and feel” of being a 20th-century
implement, it has meant “representation of a phallus”
since 1593. The batteries are recent, though.
1588 as an adjective — capable of being directed. First
applied to a balloon in 1881, and soon turned into a noun. BTW, in 1953
Auguste Piccard’s Bathyscaphe was called an “undersea
This is the English pronunciation, going back to 1553, of the
German silver Thaler (aka the Spanish peso or piece
of eight). As early as 1560 it was pointed out that a dollar was worth
five shillings, and the English 5-shilling piece (the crown) was
therefore so-called. (Crowns had been minted starting in 1542.)
The literal meaning of evolve is to unroll [a
scroll], and it was used in the sense of “reveal” as early
as 1624. Rather surprisingly, the sense “gradual change from a
simpler to a more developed form” was first recorded in 1671
— the evolution of living creatures from an egg or fetus to an
adult. I was all ready to jump on a quotation set in 1815 —
“Women are more evolved than men” — but after
consulting the oed I had to admit the author used the
word legitimately in context, where a young lady was complaining about
the childishness of her male acquaintances. A phrase like “At
age 12 she was a brat, but by 17 she had evolved into a young
lady,” would have been OK in 1671.
PS — Biological evolution of species over time was discussed by
Charles Darwin’s grandfather in 1801, and it was common
in discussions of Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of
acquired characteristics in the 1820’s, but the word is
not used in the 1859 first edition of On the Origin of
Species! (Neither is “survival of the fittest”.)
Darwin didn’t invent the idea; his book just proved it in such
great detail that it was almost impossible to argue against.)
1424 for the game itself, and 1486 for the inflated ball. The very
first citation is in a legal proclamation against the sport:
“Þhe king forbiddes þt na man play at þe fut
ball vnder þe payne of iiijd.” The second
citation in the oed is in 1531: “Foote balle,
wherin is nothinge but beastly furie and exstreme
violence.” One gets the impression that the gentler
elements of society were not too fond of the sport. In 1650, someone
described a person in distress as being “like a football in the
midst of a crowd of boys”. By the way, that first citation was
obviously hand-written and the second was obviously printed. In
handwriting, English had a /TH/ letter — /þ/, called
“thorn”. Printers didn’t have that letter, though,
and substituted the /TH/ that Latin had used to represent Greek
/θ/, theta. The archaic ye, as in “Ye Olde
Curiosity Shoppe”, really starts with a thorn — the word
is þe — and is pronounced the same as “the”.
1710 in English; even earlier in French.
1500. (“Frisk” is possibly an alteration of
“fresh”.) As a verb (to search, particularly by running
the hands over a person), to frisk is recorded for 1789.
Recorded in 1805 as a bad joke or ridiculous story, and in 1777 as
a verb, to deceive. These are both from the much older
“choke” sense — the oed has a quotation
from 1819: “Gagging…signifies, as its name may lead you
to suspect, nothing more than the thrusting of absurdities, wholesale
and retail, down the throat of some too credulous gaper.”
For 2,500 years this has been the Greek and then Latin name of
what we (in translation) call the Milky Way. I came across a reference
in a novel set in 1809 where someone seemed so strange “he might
as well have been from another galaxy“ and was fully prepared to
jump on the author for a serious anachronism. Fortunately I always
check the oed first, and I was quite surprised to find a
quotation from 1698 where someone referred to the Magellanic Clouds as
galaxies. Herschel also referred to “remote galaxies” in
about 1810. (From the 16th century, galaxy also had the metaphorical
meaning of a brilliant assembly in phrases like a galaxy of beautiful
women, a galaxy of poets, etc.)
In 1377, Piers Plowman recorded that a new knight
required galoshes and spurs. The original meaning evidently was
“boots”. The sense of overshoe goes back to at least 1600.
In the sense of a worthless or contemptible person, 1530! Usually
spelled “geck” until the 20th century, but Shakespeare
spelled it “geeke”. The modern use (sideshow freak or
computer nerd) probably developed because it could conveniently be
rhymed with “freak”. (Nerd, by the way, goes back to 1950;
it was the name of a
small unkempt animal in Dr. Suess’s If I Ran the
Disease-producing agent, 1803, in this very modern-sounding
quotation from a medical journal: “The vaccine virus must act in
one or other of these two ways: either it must destroy the germ of the
small-pox...or it must neutralize this germ.” (The word means
“seed”, as in germinate, and the example of plants
spreading was the best analogy for disease infection.)
Used to describe tasty snacks in 1745.
The History of Goody Two-Shoes was published in 1766.
This book made the phrase popular, but it was used in the literal
sense (a "Goody", i.e., Goodwife, who had two shoes (as opposed to
being barefoot) a century earlier. (By the way, The History of
Goody Two-Shoes was published by John Newbery, who almost
invented the idea of children’s literature, and for whom the
Newbery Award (for the year’s "most distinguished contribution
to American literature for children") is named.)
1584 as food. It was ground oats in Britain; the ground maize
sense is US and didn’t appear until 1886. (Edible grits are not
the same word as sandpaper grits; the foodstuff is an alternate
spelling of “groats”.)
As an informal term for a dance or ball, this looks like it
belongs to the 1920’s, but it was first used in that sense in
This shortening of “how do you do” is associated with
Wild West cowboys, but in fact is recorded (spelled
“howedye” in 1575.
1703. “Howitz”, without the German ending, is recorded
in 1700. The source, German haufnice, a catapult, goes clear
back to the 1400’s. In the mid-1700’s, the English called
the gun a hobbit.
As a pet form of “husband”, 1688.
As a noun — a studious person — this is recorded in
Jig is up
Jig has many meanings; the sense of “game” or
“trick” dates back to 1592, and “the jig is
up”, i.e., ended, was recorded in 1777. (Cf. “the game is
up”, not used until 1808.)
In English, this was used as a general term for emperor (Roman or
otherwise) from at least 1200. The Holy Roman Emperor was often called
the Kaiser. (That is, in fact, the correct Roman pronunciation of
“Caesar”, since Latin /C/ is always hard and the /Æ/
diphthong was pronounced like English “eye”.)
This looks like relatively modern slang for an agitated
disturbance, but as kafuffle or curfuffle it goes back to 1583. The
simple fuffle, to disorder, is even earlier.
1599 in the noun sense of “small child”. The verb, to
hoax or joke with, as in “kidding around”, was first
recorded in 1811. Cf. chit, which is a variation of
“kitten”, also applied to children (particularly girls)
since the 17th century.
The first use was to steal a child to be sold to the American
plantations, recorded in a legal document of 1682. It is
“kid” (see previous item) plus “nab”, to
seize. Within a few years this was generalized to taking any person,
child or adult, and selling them into slavery or servitude. The
current sense of kidnapping — stealing a person to be held for
ransom — is a 20th century industry.
1682 with the current meaning. It’s a reduplication of
knack, which is recorded in the sense “trinket” in 1540.
The original definition of both knack and knick-knack is “clever
trick” (he has a knack for charming young ladies) — knack
was used by Chaucer in 1369 while the tricky knick-knack was first
mentioned in 1618.
About 1000 ce. The Miller brewery people undoubtedly
believe this is a cutesy spelling of “light”, but in fact
the word has meant “few”, “meager”, or
“of poor quality” since Old English. “Lite” is
not even related to “light”. The latter strictly means
“low in weight” — light is the opposite of heavy
— while lite is a form of “little” and is the
opposite of fine or luxurious. The difference between the words was
much more obvious in Ye Olde Days when the /GH/ of “light”
I love it when I see products where an advertising agency obviously
does not know the meaning of a word — my grocery features not
only Lite Beer but also a snack food called Poppycock, which is
straight Dutch poppe-kak, doll shit, implying something tiny
and worthless. At the cosmetic counter I can find Porcelana brand skin
cream, which etymologically implies it will make one’s face look
like the hind end of a pig. The version of Linux I was using a few
years ago was code-named “Feisty”, literally
As an adjective describing something which could “move to a
place” by itself, this is first recorded in 1612. It also was
applied to people who liked to travel — a historian said that
Hadrian was “the most locomotive emperor Rome ever had”.
The current usage is for “locomotive engine”, one that is
self-propelled, and dates from the early 1820’s. (Early
steamboats were also called locomotives.)
1784 as a piece of candy for children, although the stick seems to
have come later.
First used to mean “technicality for evading the intent of a
law” in 1663. It originally was a porthole, either to shoot from
or to admit light and air, but loopholes could also be used as an
escape route if a person was sufficiently slippery.
The literal “full of lice” sense goes back to the time
of Chaucer, and surprisingly, so does the figurative use to mean
worthless or inferior. Cf. this quote from 1568: “His base birth
and lowsy lynage,“ or this newspaper pop music critic in 1707:
“Wicked Rhimes...sung to lowsey Tunes”. In a 1567 work on
vagabonds, the author rails against “the leud, lousey language
of these lewtering luskes and lazy lorrels.” (Lewtering =
loitering, lusk = sluggard, and lorrel = rogue or blackguard.)
1702. “Mad with” dates from 1577 and “mad
upon” is in the 1539 Bible (Psalm 102), all in the sense of
1699 for both Shrove Tuesday and the masquerade ball on that day.
This is Hebrew for “scroll”, and was used in English
as early as 1650 to refer to certain books of Jewish scripture —
particularly the book of Esther, which is read in its entirety at the
festival of Purim. Hence, “The Rabbi read the whole
Megillah.” Ironic usage to mean an interminable and boring
affair is 20th century Yiddish slang, though.
Although the phrase is famous because of Franz
Lehár“s international sensation Die Lustige
Witwe in 1905, it had been a cliché for hundreds of
years. The first dictionary citation is in 1567, with the same sense
of an amorous widow that it continued to have up to the present.
Someone said that Shakespeare should have followed up The Merry
Wives of Windsor with “The Merry Widows of
Windsor”. (The sense of a strapless corset with garters attached
is from Lana Turner wearing one in the 1952 movie of the operetta.)
About 1570. Meteorologist, one who studies the weather, was
recorded in 1621.
Since the late Middle Ages, it has been a synonym of
“mover”. There are frequent references to God as
“prime motor” of the universe, so-and-so being the
“motor of the plot”, “love is the motor of the
soul”, and so on. It was even used for mechanical devices
— in 1656 the mainspring of a clock was so described. It
didn’t become a synonym for “mechanical engine”
until 1849. Cf. engine itself, which has meant any
mechanical device since 1300 — battering rams, catapults, siege
towers, and other military machinery being the most obvious. (The word
is the concrete noun form of “ingenuity”.)
The first use of “to mug” to mean
“assault” was in 1818. Mugger (an assailant) didn’t
come along until 1865. Before that, a mugger was a blow to the face,
as in “Gentleman Jackson delivered a powerful mugger.”
As a soft shoe or slipper, often made of velvet, 1565. (Both sexes
could originally wear mules around the house, by the way — they
were particularly recommended for men suffering from gout.)
The chemical was isolated in 1819. Nicotiana is the genus
of the tobacco plant, named for Jacques Nicot, who introduced tobacco
into France in 1560.
1708. Stand-alone “mania”, madness or frenzy, goes
clear back to ancient Greek, borrowed into English in 1398; maniac as
an adjective (maniac passion) dates to 1526 but the noun sense of
“madman” not until 1763. Most of the -mania/maniac
words are 19th century, however: pyromaniac in 1845, bibliomanic 1816,
dipsomaniac 1858, monomaniac 1827, egomaniac 1890, kleptomanic 1861,
and many more that have mercifully died out. (Would you believe
anthomaniac for one with an intense love of flowers, found in a
singular quotation in 1841?) Even nymphomaniac isn’t recorded
until 1867, 160 years after the abstract noun, and there were no sex
maniacs until 1893.
Introduced to English in the 1797 translation of the Arabian
Nights, and quickly generalized to a bribe, etc. to
“magically” gain entrance.
1790. ditto for hydrogen.
1681, borrowed from the Gypsies, where it means
“brother”. (Until at least 1850 it was always used in a
criminal context — a synonym of “accomplice”.)
1597. (Pathologist is recorded for 1650.)
1803; quickly generalized to any ineffective weapon.
1680 as long as the sender and recipient were within a ten-mile
radius of London. It was not extended to the rest of Great Britain
1786 in the modern sense — see the discussion of
1598 in English, and about 900 in the Romance languages. The
coincidence that pizza and and the near-Eastern pita both mean a flat
bread is suspicious, but the identity has never been proven.
1702, defined as “cubes of meat in a pot covered by a layer
This clipped form of the Latin phrase posse comitatus (a
sheriff’s “power of the county” to commandeer
citizens to pursue criminals, put down civil unrest, etc.) has been
used since 1690 to mean the people so engaged.
A musical direction borrowed from Italian in 1744, meaning
“quickly”. (It is the same word as “prompt”.)
Cf. presto, largo, allegro, adagio, etc. It was re-borrowed from
Spanish in the American Southwest about 1850.
1653. Psychologist dates to 1727, etc. Psychology and anthropology
(q.v.) were often opposed — study of the soul and the body of
1598 as “puff paste”, the usual term until the late
18th century in England; the first citation for “puff
pastry” is 1788. In the USA, “puff paste” was still
the normal form well into the 20th century — Fanny
Farmer’s cookbook in 1911 used this form, for example.
1399, when a “rafyol” was defined as a small meatball
baked in a crust.
“He’s the real thing”, meaning genuine, was
first used in 1818.
1611. Even earlier, a cooling mechanism was called a
This has meant “sugary” since 1674. Note it is a
different word than “saccharin”, a sweet-tasting chemical
discovered in 1880.
As a noun, 1762. As a verb (“sandwiched together”) not
recorded until 1861.
1785, both noun and verb. It’s either from French
savez[-vous] or Spanish sabe [usted], take your
This term for a knife or razor certainly looks like it comes from
20th-century gangster movies, but was first recorded (spelled
“chiv”) in 1673.
1680. Shoplifting follows in 1698. Both words obviously imply the
verb “to shoplift”, but that doesn’t occur in the
record until 1810!
1636. Cf. the even earlier “stenography”. The use of
“hand” to mean “style of writing” is first
recorded in 1390. The unrelated “short-handed”, not having
enough hands, is from 1794.
Played since 1532. (The first element means “shove
repeatedly”, which is a pretty good description of the game.)
snug as a bug in a rug
Believe it or not, 1769. “Safe as a bug in a rug”,
only 2/3 as good a rhyme, is recorded for 1798. As mentioned
elsewhere, “rug” meant blanket at the time, and to the
British, “bug” strictly means a bedbug.
This synonym of “mediocre” or “passable”
looks like 20th century slang, but the first recorded use as an adverb
was in 1530 and as an adjective (soso wine) in 1542. (In 1768, Fanny
Burney described a disappointing party as “so so-so“.)
Despite the modern association with San Francisco, the word goes
back to 1303. It meant the lump of “starter” used to
leaven a new batch of dough.
1816, defined as “move like an eel”. It’s
evidently a cross between “squirm” and
“wriggle”. Before that, it meant to do fancy embroidery.
Indo-European in the literal sense of a shining celestial object.
The figurative use to mean something prominent or shining goes back to
Old English, as does the connotation of “leading”. C.f.
Star of the Sea (Latin Stella Maris as an epithet of the
Virgin Mary. Somewhat surprisingly (to me), the theatrical sense of a
very famous or popular actor was first used in 1751, and it was
extended to sports (a pugilistic star of the first magnitude) in 1811.
Superstars didn’t appear until 1913. (By the
way, to have stars in one’s eyes meant one had suffered a mild
concussion well before the figurative sense of enraptured or
deleriously happy. To “see stars” as the result of a blow
to the head is first recorded in 1598 in English and even earlier in
French and Spanish.)
1602. (1809 for stenographer.) The word is Greek for
“compressed writing” — cf.
stenosis, caused by pathological narrowing of the
1706. Pawnbroker is even earlier — 1687.
As an adjective meaning excellent (a swell party), 1812. This is
from the noun use to mean a distinguished or stylish person (the swell
strolled down Bond Street), first attested in 1786. This in turn was
from an earlier sense of arrogant, i.e., “puffed up” or
pompous. Cf. a “swelled head”.)
1794 as a mechanical signaling device, 1797 for an electrical
version. The word was quite common in connection with the Napoleonic
wars, with mechanical semaphore stations on hilltops
to quickly relay messages. In England, the best-known was the
200-mile-long line connecting the Admiralty in London to the fleet
bases at Portsmouth and Plymouth, in use until 1847, when it was
superseded by the Morse-style electro-magnetic telegraph. (I suppose
those same line-of-sight hilltops have now sprouted microwave relay
towers and/or cell phone antennae.)
1467. It was originally used mainly for backing precious stones
and mirrors; it didn’t get cheap enough for casual wrapping and
sealing until the early 19th century, and of course in the 20th it has
been superseded by the aluminum variety. Lead foil was more common in
that role; cf. the lead seals on wine bottles.
1797 in the current bouncing and tumbling sense, 16th century in
the sense “walking on stilts”.
1656. Interestingly, that’s almost 40 years earlier than the
first recorded use of trauma itself. As mentioned
earlier, it only meant “bloody wound” until
First mentioned in 1786. Similar games presumably go back to the
Neanderthals. (Trivia question: How many things can you distinguish in
the game? 1,048,576, which is 220. The game is a classic
binary search — for example, how many guesses does it take to
get a number between 1 and 1,000 if the person answers
“yes”, “no”, or “got it”? Ten
—the first guess is, “Is your number greater than or equal
to 500?”, the second is either “250” or
“750”, depending, and so on, with each guess eliminating
half the remaining numbers. 210 is 1024.)
I really hate to break this to the Miley Cyrus generation of
teens, but the word (evidently a blend of “twitch” or
“twist” plus “jerk”), was first recorded as a
noun in 1820 and as a verb in 1848. The dance sense (involving
suggestive squirming of the backside) was in common use in New Orleans
in the early 1990’s, a few years before Miss Cyrus was born. A
1993 hip-hop song has the lyrics “Shake, baby, shake, baby,
shake, shake, shake... Twerk, baby, twerk, baby, twerk, twerk,
twerk.” The oed has a description of a kitten
twerking its tail while stalking a leaf.
Professional organizer of funerals, 1698. On the other hand,
“mortician” didn’t emerge until 1895. This is one of
the few examples of a new word being less euphemistic than
what it wished to replace. Hundreds of years older in the literal
sense of one who takes on a task or provides a service of some kind.
The oed has a quotation about “The Lord is my
1728 as a cause of contagion. (Virus is the Latin word for poison.
Cf. virulent, i.e., poisonous.) Phrases like “smallpox
virus” were common in the 18th and 19th centuries — see
the comment on “germ” above. A virus [particle] was
restricted to its current sense in the early 20th century.
The verb to waffle (to make a noise like a politician) is recorded
for 1803. (It had meant to yelp like a dog since 1698 —
it’s a form of “woof”.) The edible waffle
didn’t come along until 1809, although “waffle iron”
was earlier. (It's a form of wafer and
weave, by way of the honeycomb.)
Most people probably think Coleridge made up the name for his 1816
poem Kubla Khan, but note this quotation from 1625:
“Xandu, which the great Chan Cublay..built; erecting..a
maruellous..palace of marble.”
How to Make a Reader Jump
Many words have changed meaning enough that, when used appropriately
in the context of an earlier century, they give quite the wrong
impression to a modern reader. Consider the following hypothetical
quotations from historical novels:
The Earl of Redstart’s valet observed his
master’s choice of a waistcoat and said, deferentially,
“If I may say so, my lord, I think you are quite
cute.” Cute is a short form of acute and meant mentally
sharp or discriminating.
The Duke of Wellington is a very dainty human
being, but he has a Martian mind. Dainty is a form of
“dignity”, and in this context meant “worthy”
or “excellent”. As early as Chaucer, Martian was used in
its literal “related to Mars” sense to mean warlike
— now we say “martial” instead. Both martial and
martian were also once used to refer to the month of March.
“No offense, Redstart, but how did you manage
to acquire such a crummy wife?“ Crummy used to mean
“soft and delicious”, and was applied to a well-rounded
sexy woman. The current term is zaftig, Yiddish for
“I would be pleased to mount you, Miss
Hampton,“ said Lord Redstart politely. It meant to
provide with a horse to ride. Georgette Heyer loved this
Lord Redstart’s father suffered a severe
concussion when a heavy cadre fell on his head. Until about
1850, a cadre was a picture frame. (It’s Latin quattro,
square, through French.) The military sense is because a
regiment’s permanent officers and NCOs were the
“framework” which was filled out with recruits as needed.
After his father’s funeral, Lord Redstart
took a mortuary out of his pocket and handed it to the priest.
From about 1380, a mortuary was a gift conventionally given to the
officiating priest or rector from the estate of the deceased. The
current sense of a building to hold corpses only dates from 1865.
As was customary and proper, Lord Redstart had been
his father’s executioner. Executor and executioner were
used indifferently until the middle of the 19th century. It was common
to call the hangman somebody’s executor. Either way, the
etymological meaning is to “follow out” or as we would now
say, “carry out” an assigned task. Cf. a computer
executing its instructions, or a driver executing a left turn.
The new vicar was responsible for the immediate
decimation of his parish. Well into the 19th century,
decimation meant to collect tithes, from Latin decimationem,
to take a tenth. The sense of punishing a military unit by executing
every tenth soldier came later, and the extended sense of
“thoroughly destroy” came even later.
The Earl of Redstart gave a dime to his parish,
which made the vicar very happy. Since the 14th century, a
dime had been used to mean a tenth of anything. Shakespeare used the
word to mean “decimation” in the military sense —
see above. In the present case, the vicar was happy because the
wealthy lord had tithed to the parish, the normal meaning until the
new United States chose it for the name of a coin in 1786.
The vicar painfully administered to his
flock. Painful was used to mean dutiful or conscientious. Cf.
The Bishop wrote a sermon demonstrating that God
was indifferent to mankind. Going back to the 14th century, the
meaning was “impartial”, and there are references to
unbiased judges and indifferent juries well into the 19th century. The
secondary sense of “apathetic” developed in the 16th
century by way of “neither in favor of nor against”.
God’s grace prevents all our actions.
In Theology, “prevent” is used in its literal Latin sense,
to “go before” or anticipate. The Book of Common Prayer
has, “Prevent us, O lord, in all our doings, with thy most
gracious favour.” In ordinary English it could mean anticipate
— Lady Redstart’s maid prevented her
every wish, and it also could mean to precede, as in When Lord Redstart started toward the dining room, a duke
quite properly prevented him.
Florence Nightingale was widely regarded as a
pitiful example of a human being. Right up until the 20th
century, “pitiful” still occasionally had its etymological
meaning — full of pity, merciful, or charitable. So did
“pitiable” — able to show pity.
The queen was happy to see that the castle’s
laundry had stained and discolored her gown, leaving it perfectly
white. In Renaissance times, “stain” meant to
bleach out (it is really “dis-tint”) and of course the
original sense of “discolor” was to remove color. Stain
was also used in the metaphorical sense of “outshine” in
phrases like “her beauty stained all the other women in the
room”. In other words, made them look washed out and
Columbus was quite upset when one of his ships
hurtled an island. The original meaning of hurt (and its
frequentive, hurtle) was to collide. The ship ran aground. In past
times hurtle was frequently confused with the unrelated hurl. In
modern times, the confusion is with hurdle, also not related.
In the parlor, Miss Hampton performed a Christmas
carol which consisted mainly of expletives. An expletive was a
word added only for rhyme or rhythm, without adding to the sense.
“Hey, nonny” and “tra, la, la” passages are
expletives. In this case, Miss Hampton was singing “Deck the
Halls”, where the four repetitions of “fa la la la la, la
la la la” produce 36 expletives per verse.
The vicar preached his sermon on one of the most
improper passages of the Bible. Improper used to mean
metaphorical; in this case the preacher’s text was the 23rd
Psalm. His listeners also thought the parables of Jesus were improper
and that Pilgrim’s Progress was an exceedingly
The following Sunday, the vicar’s sermon
pointed out that Jesus was a notorious pedophile. Notorious
we’ve already encountered as a synonym for
“well-known”, while pedophile was occasionally used in its
literal Greek sense —lover of children — without the
current sexual connotation.
”Be careful of that jellyfish,“ he
warned. ”It has very sharp teeth.” It was
originally the name of a real fish, about a foot long, with lots of
teeth. The current meaning of a floating blob with tentacles
wasn’t used until 1841.
Although Lord C------ was in his 80’s, he was
still regarded as quite voluptuous. As mentioned earlier,
voluptuous simply meant “pleasure-loving” until 1839, with
no connotation of the female form attached.
Benjamin Franklin was a famous typewriter.
It meant printer or compositor before the first mechanical typewriters
came along in the 1860’s.
The Navy Board placed an order for a thousand
tampons, each four inches in diameter. Tampon, tampion, and
tompion are alternate spellings of the same word, from the French for
a plug. In addition to feminine sanitary use, tampons were used for
stopping bloody wounds, and the term was also used for a wooden plug
placed in the mouth of a cannon to keep out water and debris.
Presumably it was the last that interested the Navy. (If you know any
soldiers, ask them if they carried tampons (the sanitary variety) with
them on active duty. They will probably say ‘of course’,
since there is still nothing better for quickly stopping heavy
bleeding from a bullet wound — at least, nothing better that can
fit in a pocket.)
The pious monks of St. Joseph’s Monastery
were known to be extremely devious. As late as 1856,
“devious” still could be used in its etymological sense
— “out of the way”. The monks led a remote and
W------ C------ was arrested on Tuesday on charges
of being empirical. From the 16th to the early 19th century, it
meant a medical quack, charlatan, or mountebank.
The governess reported to Lady Redstart that her
four-year-old daughter had a spectacular orgasm that morning.
Orgasm actually means “extreme emotion” or “fit of
passion”; the restriction to a sexual climax is fairly recent.
In modern terms, the little girl threw a tantrum. The passage could
also have said she had a wonderful orgasm: wonderful could mean
“spectacular” or “astonishing” well into the
The judge and the prosecutor both agreed that Lord
Redstart’s theft accusation against his former bailiff would be
civilized. Well into the 18th century, civilize had its literal
meaning — to make civil. In legal terms, it meant to turn a
criminal matter into a civil one. Therefore, Lord Redstart agreed to
sue his dishonest bailiff instead of prosecuting him. (This is the
only definition of both civilize and its noun, civilization, in
Johnson’s dictionary, for instance.)
Unlike many monarchs, King Henry VIII preferred to
make prime time speeches. Long, long before radio and
television, “prime time” meant “early in the
morning” -- the canonical hours of prayer were prime (6 AM),
tierce, nones, and so on. The first citation in the oed
is from Morte Arthure in about 1400: “They pype vpe
at pryme tyme”, possibly talking about frogs or birds.
“Your country seat is an awful pile, Lord
Redstart. I have seldom seen a more artificial building.”
A pile was once any large or imposing building, and there is a famous
line where someone praised St. Paul’s cathedral as “awful,
amusing, and artificial.” Awful meant inspiring awe (cf.
awesome), amusing meant causing one to muse, and artificial meant made
Yesterday at Old Bailey, a felon was hanged for
plagiarism. Many authors would probably nod and think this
shows how civilized the British used to be, but in fact plagiary is
still a legal term for kidnapping a child. (It’s from Latin
Colonel Wilson told off his troops, and
complimented them on winning the battle. The original meaning
of “tell” is to count (cf. the bank teller) and to tell
off was to count off; a common military operation. The modern sense of
to scold or reprimand is not recorded until 1919.
Because of his amusement during the attack, General
A------ was relieved of command. In addition to the above
meaning, “amusement” also meant delay or time-wasting.
The drill sergeant reported to Colonel Thompson
that the regiment’s new recruits were all plastic.
Plastic is from the Latin word for “moldable” — cf.
Mary Queen of Scots had a gown made of fine French
puke, lined with satin. From about 1400 to 1600, puke was used
for a fine woolen fabric. The oed also has references to
“puke-colored”, which seems to have been a dark brown.
There is no relation to puce-colored, let alone the word for vomiting,
which comes from spuke, a Dutch or German version of
spew. (Puce, a purplish brown, is French for
The brave soldier was thrilled by the enemy and
died instantly. To thrill was to pierce, as with an arrow or
lance. The current usage is metaphorical.
Sir J---- was struck over the head by a piece of
fabric and died instantly. Until well into the 18th century,
the only meaning of “fabric” was the structure of a
building. The unfortunate man was hit with a building stone.
One day at the theatre, Shakespeare complained of a
severe pain in his womb. The Old English meaning was
“abdomen”, and it was used in that sense until at least
1750. Shakespeare himself has a male character complain about his womb
in Henry IV, Pt. 2. “The duty of the womb”
was once a euphemism for the necessity of a bowel movement. (The sense
of “uterus“ also goes back to Old English. In the biblical
“blessed be the fruit of thy womb…”, the word is a
translation of Latin venter, which also meant both uterus and
belly. Cf. the heart’s ventricles, literally little bellies.)
Wellington ordered the artillery to be aimed
randomly, and every shot hit the target. Gunners use
“random“ almost as a synonym of “range”, and
to fire a gun at random meant with maximum elevation. The word
actually meant force or speed, and in falconry a bird was described as
making a kill at random when it attacked at full speed. The current
sense of haphazard developed by way of “impetuous”.
Wellington, Nelson, the Prince Regent, and Casanova
all lived mundane lives. As mentioned previously, it simply
meant that none of them were members of the clergy.
The preacher’s thesis was that St. John was
the most pneumatic apostle. The Greek pneu- root meant
breath, air, or spirit. In this sense, pneumatic was a learned way of
Saints are known for copulating with God.
The word simply means link, connect, or unite; it’s the same
word as “couple”. One early citation spoke of the
necessity of England copulating with Scotland. In grammar, the word
“and” is called a copulative. (The sexual sense is nearly
as old in English; c.f. “couple” itself.)
Lord and Lady Redstart were upset when the
governess informed them they had measly children. You got it
— the kids had the measles. The modern-day meaning of inferior
is a slang term from about 1860. Cf. lousy (infested with lice),
scruffy (scurvy), shabby (scabby), mangy, flea-bitten, etc. for
similar applications of skin conditions, and a rascal is someone who
has a rash.
Sir C------- was amazed when the thief patted him
on the head. To pat originally meant to strike. The
oed has a citation about David patting Goliath with a
rock. No relation to “petting” — a pet is Gaelic for
a hand-raised lamb. The first meaning of “amaze” was to
knock out or stupefy — cf. the figurative use of
“stun”, “astound”, and “astonish”,
all of which also mean to render unconscious.
The physician told Lady Redstart that she
shouldn’t be worried; her children merely had cholera. As
mentioned above, cholera was a mild intestinal complaint until 1831,
when the meaning (and threat) drastically changed.
William Shakespeare enjoyed going to the tavern
next to the Globe theater to eat a slice of pizza for lunch.
Actually, there is an anachronism in that sentence, but it is
the word “lunch”, which is not recorded as a shortening of
“luncheon” until 1829. Luncheon itself, a light mid-day
meal, is only known from 1652. As mentioned above, the flat bread,
complete with cheese on top, goes back to 1598 in English. If the
author had written William Shakespeare enjoyed
going to the tavern next to the Globe theater to eat a lunch of
pizza then everything would have been correct, because in
Shakespeare’s time the meaning of “lunch” was a
piece, slice, or chunk of anything, but usually food. (A side of bacon
was once called a lunch of bacon, for example.)
Lord S------- and Lady Y------ were married
yesterday at St. George’s after a complete capitulation.
Nobody surrendered; a capitulation was a legal agreement neatly
arranged under separate headings, or chapters, with no sense
of “surrender”. Such legal paperwork was a normal
precursor to an aristocratic wedding at the time, of course. The
current sense is from diplomatic use to describe a peace treaty.
Lord Redstart’s mother is somewhat deaf, and
so the dowager countess uses a rare electrical microphone. From
1683 until the early 20th century, a microphone was an ear trumpet.
Cf. the much bigger megaphone. Electrical was a description of an
object made out of amber, Greek elektron. (The scientific use
came from rubbing amber to produce static electricity.)
Sir Walter Scott’s novels are very exciting
and utterly prosaic. From 1656 until the present day, prosaic
has maintained its literal meaning of written or spoken in prose;
prosaic is the opposite of poetic. (The oed has a 1992
quotation about someone turning a prosaic work into poetry.) The
“dull, flat, and boring” sense, now more common, has
existed in parallel since 1729.
All Mennonite women, even the little girls, are
hookers. Both male and female members of the Old Order
Mennonites, aka the Amish, were often called “Hookers”
because they do not use buttons on their clothing. (They try to live
in a purely biblical manner. The Bible does not indicate that the
Isrealites used electricity or automobiles, and it also doesn’t
mention buttons or zippers.)
Everyone knows that Prime Minister Disraeli and
Cardinal Newman are perverts. See above for the meaning of
pervert. Benjamin D’Israeli was born a Jew, but his father Isaac
had a disagreement with his synagogue and converted his entire family
to Christianity when the future statesman was thirteen. Newman made an
extremely public conversion from Anglican to Roman Catholic. (He was
one of the founders of the “High Church” or
“Oxford” movement to bring the Church of England closer to
Catholic practices, but decided he might as well go all the way.)
Critics all said that the just-published book
about the Mongol invasion of Russia was truly terrible. As
mentioned in the comment about Ivan the Terrible,
“terrible” was originally a synonym of
“terrifying“. (Poe and Lovecraft wrote terrible short
Lord Redstart is so fastidious that he only will
drink wine that has been defecated by his butler. Latin
faeces meant “dregs”, and defecate meant to
purify or refine — literally to remove sediment. There’s a
fairly well-known line where a historian described how Martin Luther
suddenly began to defecate the Roman church. The meaning “void
excrement” is a euphemism that only dates from 1864, but as late
as 1890 hosts were still being advised to defecate the wine before
Yesterday, his majesty’s urinator, Mr.
Curtis, gave a demonstration of his special urination
techniques. Once, to urinate meant to swim underwater. Mr.
Curtis really existed; he was the royal navy’s professional
salvage diver in the late 17th century, and this passage is a direct
quote from a newspaper article.
The Countess of Redstart was quite impressed that
her host had provided her with a solid gold pelvis. The Latin
meaning of “pelvis” was “wash basin”; the
anatomy sense is much more modern.
Lord and Lady Redstart sat in their pew at the
cathedral watching the priest use the lavatory. This was
another “basin” word (from Latin lavabo, to wash)
and was the normal ecclesiastical word for the basin used by a priest
to ceremonially wash his hands during mass.
Cf. “washroom”, “bathroom”, “rest
room”, “powder room”, and many other euphemisms for
the smallest room in the house. Also see the next two items.
Lady Redstart’s dressing room featured a blue
velvet toilet with a gold and silver fringe. Her head protruded from
the toilet while her maid was dressing her hair. The original
meaning was “small cloth”, either a decorative cloth laid
on a dressing table or a protective towel in general. (The author
also could have brought up this image: At the lawn
party, all the ladies were sitting on toilets.) From the table
covering sense it also came to mean the dressing table itself, in
phrases like “the lady was at her toilet”, presumably
using toilet water and other toiletries, while the current euphemistic
use is 20th century.
Lady Redstart wore a very fetching commode on her
head while walking in the park. The literal sense of
“commode” is “convenience” (still seen in
“accommodate” and “discommode”), but in the
17th and 18th centuries it had two other meanings — a chest of
drawers and a tall headdress for women. The word didn’t become
a euphemism for a chamber pot until the middle of the 19th century
— cf. “the necessary” and “the
convenience” in the same sense.
Lady Redstart wore a large tire decorated with
flowers and ribbons while walking in the park. Until the late
19th century, one meaning of a tire was a woman’s headdress.
Like the tire of a wheel, it is a shortening of “attire”.
(Wheel tires date from 1485 — they were iron hoops protecting
wooden wheels until rubber tires were developed for the bicycle in the
19th century, so Shakespeare might have mentioned that a carriage was
bouncing because it had a flat tire.)
The little girl walked into the parlor wearing a
dainty white tire, and curtsied to the guests. This tire is a
completely different word, unrelated to “attire”! As an
article of girls’ clothing, a tire was a pinafore or apron. It
really should have been spelled “tier” — that is, a
tie-er — but then people would have mistaken it for the
“layer” meaning of tier. Again, this sense lasted until
the late 19th century.
Miss Hampton may have looked delicate, but she
could tackle a horse. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, to
tackle meant to equip, particularly to saddle or harness a horse.
(Cf. “tack” for the horse’s equipment, and also
“fishing tackle”.) The word progressed to “grab
hold of” about 1840.
Yesterday, the navy launched a new locomotive which
immediately sank. As mentioned previously,
“locomotive” was applied to anything that could move by
its own power, including steamboats.
The evil Bluebeard was suspected of spoiling his
wives. The original meaning of the verb was to strip or pillage
(cf. despoil), but as late as 1726 it also meant destroy or kill.
(The oed has a quotation about a horse which fell off a
cliff and was spoiled.)
Miss S------ was cut by the tabbies at
Almack’s because of a whispering campaign that she was a
mechanic. The literal meaning of mechanical is “having
power” (it’s related to magic, may, and might), but it
came to mean “working with the hands” and then acquired
the general sense of “common”, by way of “member of
the laboring classes”. As late as the 1960’s, the
oed cites someone disapproving of a “mechanical
dress”, and to call someone a mechanic was simply saying they
Two people died yesterday in Oxford Street after
being crushed by a frontispiece. The word does not mean a
“piece of the front” of a book. The division is
fronti- (forehead) -spiece (view or inspect).
Originally a synonym of “face”, it was used for a
building’s facade hundreds of years before
publishers got hold of it. The unfortunate pedestrians were killed
by falling bricks or stones when a building collapsed.
Miss Hampton’s grandfather was a noted
civilian. As mentioned above, a civilian formerly was a
magistrate; specifically, an authority on civil law.
There was a pause in the battle while Napoleon
recharged his batteries. This one is easy —
“recharge” has had its literal meaning of
“reload” for a thousand years, and a battery, of course,
is a group of guns.
At the garden party, Miss T------ was discovered
lying beneath a marquis. Until the 20th century, marquis,
marquise, and marquess were used interchangeably. In fact, the
missing young lady had been overcome by the heat and was resting under
a large tent. To avoid this sort of confusion, the tent is now
usually spelled phonetically as “marquee” and the peer is
pronounced “markwess” (or “mahkwess” in
England, of course), leaving “marquise” (pronounced
“markee”) as a type of gemstone cut.
Lady J------- is quite promiscuous at the dining
table. “Promiscuous” simply means
“indiscriminate”; the restriction to the current sexual
sense didn’t occur until the 20th century. In the Lady’s
case, it meant she liked all kinds of foods and would eat whatever was
put in front of her — the opposite of being picky or finicky.
Miss B----- was quite careless and extremely
meticulous. That sounds like a contradiction, but
“meticulous” was first used for “careful about small
details” in 1827; before that the meaning was
“fearful”. (Latin had two words for fear —
metus was a justified fear, and timor was an
unreasonable fear or panic, so a young lady might be meticulous about
being cornered by an amorous gentleman, but timid when confronted with
King Edward was well-known for upsetting
churches. No, he didn’t offend anybody in the
congregation. “Upset” once had its literal definition
— to set up or erect. Therefore, good King Edward built
churches. In the early 19th century, the sense changed to
“overturn”, its former opposite. In other words, the
meaning of upset was upset.
The cruel pirates heckled their prisoner until he
bled. A heckle or hackle (related to “hook”) was a
steel comb used to process flax or hemp; if applied to a human it
would take off the skin quite nicely. The current sense of a hostile
audience heckling a speaker is metaphor — to irritate or flay.
Until almost 1900 it was mainly applied to shouting at a political
Miss Hampton was found squiggling in a lady-like
manner in the parlor. As mentioned previously, in addition to
the “squirm + wriggle” sense, it once meant to do fancy
The evidence showed the thief had been justified,
so they buried him. Well into the 19th century, to justify
someone meant to summarily hang or lynch them -- literally, to
Lord Redstart threatened the highwayman with his
dick. In the 19th century it meant “riding whip”;
the first slang use for “penis” isn’t until 1890.
(Both the latter sense and its synonym “dork” are probably
from “dirk”, dagger. Note those /R/s aren’t
pronounced in propuh British.)
The Earl of Redstart strolled into the House of
Lords in his birthday suit. Originally, one’s best
clothes, worn on special occasions like one’s own or the
King’s birthday. The sense of “bare skin” is a play
According to Wellington’s dispatches, Colonel
Thompson heroically kicked up his heels at Waterloo. As
mentioned in the Anachronism section earlier, the unfortunate colonel
The Ton was shocked when Sir William was
found to be presentable. As mentioned above, it meant he was
subject to criminal prosecution.
The Sahara desert is very antibiotic. As
mentioned previously, The original meaning of the term was the literal
Greek — “against life”— so the speaker was
talking about the difficuly of living in the desert. The current sense
(“against microbes”) was first used in 1944 in reference
The Hampton children are almost female.
Almost used to mean “mostly all”. This looks odd in
phrases like “the residents of Tokyo are almost Japanese”,
but it is handy to be able to say things like “lawyers are
almost honest” or “Congressmen are almost
intelligent” without fear of libel. There were six Hampton
children, one boy and five girls.
Miss Hampton mentioned that she loved her horrid
little dog. The etymological meaning is “shaggy”,
and it was still used in that sense into the 19th century.
Miss Hampton was quite upset that she was dancing
barefoot. This was an old slang term for a woman whose younger
sister married first. Shakespeare used it in The Taming of the
Shrew — “She must have a husband; I must dance
bare-foot on her wedding day, And for your love to her lead apes in
hell.” (To lead apes in Hell was the proverbial fate of a woman
who died a virgin.)
Sir Walter Scott wrote many stirring adventures
about the brave Albanians. There are three different
countries called Albania. Well into the 19th century, this referred
to Scotland (Alba was the Gaelic name of the country.) All
the places called Albany are re-spelled from
Albania. After about 1600, it was also used to
describe a country in the Balkans (the normal modern use), and there
had been a Roman province of Albania in the Caucasus; it is now called
Azerbaijan. (Just to increase the confusion, there is also a Lake
Albano near Rome, named for an ancient Italic tribe called the
Albani, and there are at least three towns in Columbia called
Albania.) All these Albaniae at least are real, but the Vikings
claimed to have found an island in the mid-Atlantic “six days
sail west of Ireland” which also received the name!
Mrs. Lincoln was so upset by the assassination of
her husband that she consulted a notorious psychopath. The
original meaning (1864) was a doctor specializing in mental illnesses.
Cf. osteopath, a “bone doctor”. The first instance of the
modern sense of psychopath — a person with serious mental
illness, particularly with violence or delusions — was in 1885.
“Notorious” simply means “well-known”. It has
always had the meanings of both famous and infamous, so a notorious
psychopath would today be called a famous psychiatrist.
(Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, published in
1886, could punningly have referred to the good doctor himself,
leaving out niggling details like the Latin gender of
“psychopathia”. The book was written in German, by the
way. He chose the Latin title to scare away lay readers, but it
didn’t do any good.)
Everyone was shocked when Lord Redstart avoided his
roadster. Avoid is “ex-void”, to empty out. It was
once used in the literal sense — “We had extra guests for
dinner and avoided the cupboard.” It also meant to expel —
“Ferdinand and Isabella avoided Spanish Jews,“ — and
then to leave. The current usage is from phrases like “Young
ladies are advised to avoid the vicinity of a rake,“ i.e., to
leave the area, not the person. In Regency times, a roadster was a
horse for long-distance traveling, so the earl fell off his horse.
(Later in the 19th century, a roadster was a light carriage; this is
the meaning which was transformed into an open two-seater automobile
in the early 1900’s.)
Wellington had two soldiers hanged for eloping
during the battle of Waterloo. As mentioned previously, the
literal meaning of elope, in use until about 1840, is simply
“ex-lope”, to run away. The two soldiers deserted while
Lord Redstart read an interesting article on the
erratic Huns and their emotions. The literal meaning of erratic
is “wandering”, as in “knight errant”. (It was
once common to see constructions like “St. Thomas was well-known
for his errors.”) Emotion is “ex-motion”, to move
out, and once was a synonym of “migration”.
King Edward’s strategy for controlling Wales
consisted mainly of building castles in the clouds. Until about
1350, the main meaning of cloud was “hill”, with a
secondary sense of “lump”. It is the same word as clot and
clod, with a fundamental sense of “accumulated mass”. Cf.
a cumulus or “hilly” cloud. My lead sentence for this
section could have been, The Round Table
was shocked to learn that Sir Lancelot was injured when his horse
tripped over a cloud.
Lady Redstart told her chef that his dinners had
insufficient liaisons. Liaison is a French relative of Latin
ligare, to bind together — cf. ligament and legato.
From 1665 until the early 19th century, the only meaning of liaison
was as a cooking term, namely the thickening agent of a sauce. Both
the “sexual affair” and “military cooperation”
senses were first recorded in 1816. As mentioned above, the military
verb to liaise took another century to surface.
The general proposed that troops be trained to use
skates for military operations in the deep snow of the mountain
slopes. Skates in deep snow? Skating down a mountain? Well, the
word “skate” once meant a ski as well as the item for
sliding around on ice.
The newspapers reported that a prominent attorney
had been faked out in broad daylight; the funeral is tomorrow.
In the early 19th century, to fake was an underworld slang term for
“perform” or “take action against“. It usually
meant to shoot, wound, cut, etc. In particular, to fake out or fake
out-and-out was to murder, normally by assault. “Fake”
didn’t acquire its milder sense of “deceive” until
Horatio Nelson urgently requested that the
Admiralty send him a dirigible pilot. As mentioned above,
dirigible literally means “directable” and was used in
that sense for 300 years before somebody managed to put a motor on a
balloon. Presumably Nelson was irritated with a pilot for refusing an
order that he (the pilot) considered unsafe. (When a pilot is on
board, he gives navigational orders, not the captain.)
William and Mary were quite proud of their large
condominium. The current sense of an apartment house where
residents own their own suites is first cited as an American invention
in 1962. For hundreds of years before that, it had the literal Latin
meaning implied by “co-dominion“ — joint
At Penzance, the shore is completely covered with
beach. The proper meaning of “beach” is pebbles or
shingle; the current usage is from phrases like “walking along
the beach” being misinterpreted by those not living near the
sea. Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in England, would
therefore seem to be a headland with a rocky shore, but not so. The
first word is perverted from French beau chef, fine head, so
Beachy Head is a “beautiful head head”. (Shore seems to be
a “shear” word — the division between land and
He walked into the low tavern and was not surprised
to see that almost every man had a blackjack on his table. It
meant a large jug of beer or ale, usually made of leather. The current
sense of a weighted bludgeon is a US contribution to culture first
noted in 1889. The use to describe the card game more usually called
vingt-et-un or twenty-one is even newer — 1910 —
and is also American.
A far-fetched creature wrapped tightly around the
neck of the Countess of Redstart caused much comment at the
Opera. Until the late 19th century, creature was a synonym of
“creation” and could be used for anything created, animate
or artificial, so it was a perfectly reasonable term for a
lady’s necklace. Similarly, far-fetched retained its literal
meaning — brought from afar — until at least 1870. Lady
Redstart’s diamond necklace came from India. From the time of
Shakespeare, “far-fetched and dear-bought” was a
cliché for a gift sure to impress a lady.
Those who have studied the amazing creature called
Stonehenge are certain that it is an organism.
“Organism” meant anything carefully laid out or organized;
it was not used to mean something which was alive until about 1830.
See above for “creature”.
At the ball, Lady Redstart’s only jewelry was
a large ultramarine ruby in her slot. The lady’s pendent
was undoubtedly rare and costly, but not to the extent of being the
only blue ruby in creation. Ultramarine once had its literal meaning
— beyond the sea — and so the far-fetched ruby probably
was suitably red and came from Burma. The sense of “bright
blue” came from “ultramarine” being applied to a pigment made
from powdered lapis lazuli. (A blue ruby would be an oxymoron, since
“ruby” is a member of the “red” family.) As
mentioned above, “slot” was an older word for cleavage.
In addition to her ultramarine ruby, Lady Redstart
has another necklace made entirely of bright green plasma.
Since the late 16th century, “plasma” has been the
jewelers’ name for green chalcedony; it was short for
“plasma of emerald”. The plasma of Biology (blood plasma,
cell plasm, protoplasm) and Physics (an ionized gas) is a different
word meaning form or mould, related to plastic and plaster.
Lady Redstart enjoys growing flowers in her
stove. The original meaning of “stove” was a heated
room, and as late as 1870 one finds references to
“stove-flowers”, indicating they had been grown in a
stove, or hothouse. Cf. “stew”, whose literal sense is
“Turkish bath”, leading both to “food cooked by
steaming” and to “whorehouse”.
The terrific pirate captain brandished a naked
brown sable he had withdrawn from his vagina, while the rest of his
bloodthirsty and impressively garnished tangerines were guessing with
their pernicious trombones. This sounds like the opening of a
Monty Python skit, but…
“Terrific” used to have the literal sense of
“creating fear”, as its verb “terrify” still
“Sable” is the original form of the weapon now spelled
“sabre” or “saber” in English. Even so, it
ought to be “shaber” — cf. German sabel,
Italian sciabla, Hungarian szablya, and Scottish
shabble, all with an /SH/ sound.
“Brown” once meant “shiny” and was often
applied to swords — cf. “burnish”. (By the way,
nobody knows why the other sable came to mean “black”; the
animal is quite definitely brown in the modern sense.)
As mentioned previously, “tangerine” once strictly meant a
resident of Tangier.
Well into the 19th century, “garnished” retained its
etymological meaning of armored — it’s a relative of
guard, ward, beware, etc.
Pernicious still means “deadly”; this is seen in diseases
like pernicious anemia. The weakened sense of harmful, particularly in
an insidious manner, came from the disease sense.
The original meaning of “guess” was “take
aim”, giving the reader a good idea of the accuracy of medieval
In addition to the musical sense, “trombone” (big horn,
just as a trumpet is a little one) once meant a blunderbuss, from the
flaring barrel of the gun.
Finally, “vagina” is simply the Latin word for sheath or
scabbard; the anatomical usage is much more modern. This also explains
how “vanilla” is really vaginilla, little
vagina, from the appearance of the pods.
While working on the Gettysburg
Address one night, President Lincoln needed to adjust his
carburettor. The original meaning was a device for squirting a
carbon compound into a gas light to make the flame brighter. The
automotive sense came thirty years later, keeping the sense of
The Times reported that the noted
sportsman Sir S------ was thrilled by a bugle and died instantly.
Witnesses stated that his attention had been distracted by a musket
flying overhead. Bugle meant “wild ox”; the musical
instrument was originally a bugle-horn. As mentioned previously, to
thrill is to poke a hole through something, to pierce, so the ox gored
the unfortunate man. (Cf. nostril, a “nose-thrill”.) A
musket was a small hawk before the name was applied to a kind of gun.
It’s the same word as mosquito — a “small
fly”, Latin musca. (The flying muskets were also called
tercels, because the male hawks were a third smaller than the
Everyone laughed when Sir James claimed he had
acquired his black eye by running into a valve. Right up to
present times, “valve” has retained its original Latin
sense of a swinging door. (It’s related to other
“turn” words like revolve and volume.) Here’s a
quote from 1834: “Throwing open the valves, we entered the
chapel.” The mechanical sense didn’t develop until the
17th century. Notice that a bivalve is an oyster or
clam with “two doors”. Technically, a door assembly
consists of one or two valves, the vertical jambs on
either side (gamba, leg) and the horizontal
lintel (limes, boundary) that supports the
weight of the wall above the door.
General T------- was relieved because his magazine
had been circulated. Circulated once meant encircled. The
incompetent general was removed from his command for having gotten his
ammunition storage area surrounded by the enemy.
Everyone in the village agreed that the hideously
ugly old crone was glamorous, so they drowned her. As late as
the early 19th century, “glamour” meant magic, and a
glamorous woman was a witch. For the current use, cf.
“bewitching” and “spellbinding”.
Queen Mary loved to go walking on the first day of
the new year to see the Spring flowers and listen to the birds.
Gotcha! Until 1752, in England the year began on March 25th —
Lady Day. It switched to January 1 when the Gregorian calendar was
finally adopted. (The four Quarter Days, when rents were due,
employment fairs were held, etc. were Lady Day, Midsummer Day (June
24), Michaelmas (September 29), and Christmas. Lady Day, or the Feast
of the Annunciation, was of course exactly nine months before
Mr. Brummel is very handsome, and although he is
exquisitely polite, he is quite repulsive. Many people think he has an
unpleasant morgue. Repulsive meant aloof. The book
could have said, Lady Redstart made a
repulsive hand gesture. Presumably she made a motion for
someone to keep their distance. Since 1600, morgue has had its
original French meaning, which is a haughty, arrogant manner. A
morgue, where the dead are kept, is the same word, but it didn’t
make it into English until 1795. It was originally the Paris
prison’s receiving room, where prisoners were examined by the
guards with their morgue.
Lord Redstart told his wife to take an extra
footman as an escort so she would be less obnoxious. In
addition to the current sense of offensive, obnoxious once meant
“exposed to harm, in danger”.
At court, Lord Redstart approached the throne and
told the queen that he was “Her Majesty’s humble and
devoted prostitute.” Prostitute could once be used in a
non-offensive sense to mean a servant or slave, one showing abject
At Christmas the family was greatly reduced, and
they joyfully impaled each other. The literal definition of
reduce is “bring back”; cf. to reduce a fracture.
Therefore, the Yule festivities in question featured a family reunion.
One of the meanings of impale was “enclose, fence in”
behind a pale or paling (God impaled Adam and Eve), and it was
generalized to mean “embrace” or “hug”. The
current sense implies using a fence post for a different function.
Miss C------ was quite vibrant before her first
waltz at Almacks. The young lady was so nervous she was
shaking. As mentioned earlier, the current sense of
“lively” dates only from 1867.
The earl and his friends enjoyed shooting for
pheasant in the remote jungles and deserts of Scotland. A
desert was any uninhabited area, with no sand dunes implied. Cf.
“deserted”, Robinson Crusoe-style desert islands, and
19th-century maps showing “The Great American Desert”
— the empty grassland between the Mississippi and the Rockies.
Jungle was a word picked up from Hindi, where it did mean a
sand-dune desert — Sanskrit jangala meant dry. It was
applied in Anglo-Indian to any uncultivated area, particularly one
with scrub trees, high grass, etc., and it is still used to mean
“wild, untamed” in phrases like a blackboard or asphalt
jungle. Presumably, Dartmoor could be described as a jungle.
Lord Redstart shivered and said, “Please
light the fire; this room is so humorous it is like a
frigidaire.” Although most people probably think the
refrigerator brand is a blend of “frigid” and
“air”, the word is the French version of Latin
frigidarium, the cold room in a public bath. Presumably the
earl spent some time in a frigidaire while in Paris on his grand tour,
or maybe his favorite Turkish bath in London featured one. (The other
two Roman bath chambers were the hot calidarium and the warm
tepidarium. Some baths also featured a dry heat chamber, the
laconicum, so-called because supposedly invented by the
Humorous once meant damp, from the etymological sense — Latin
humor meant moisture.
“I do not wish to have anything to do with
Viscount M------; he is so humorous he beats his wife and
children.” The nasty man was neither funny nor wet (see
above), he was moody. This goes back to the idea that body humors
(the fluids bile, blood, phlegm, choler, black choler, etc.) governed
behavior. Cf. bilious, sanguine (Latin sanguineus = bloody),
phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholy (Greek melos = black)
temperaments. The current “funny” usage of humorous is due
to phrases like “in good humor” to mean happy.
Wellington reported that although a British
commando had been cut into three pieces by the French, the parts
continued to fight valiantly until they eventually reunited.
Until about 1870, a commando was a military expedition, not a single
Captain Hampton is very proud of his second-rate
ship. In British Navy terminology, a 1st-rate ship had at least
a hundred guns, while a 2nd-rate had between 90 and 98. They were
huge, with a complement of up to a thousand men. Here’s a sketch by Turner of one of these monsters, showing the
scale. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Navy had only 7 or 8 1st-rate
and 15 or 20 2nd-rate ships at any one time, out of nearly a thousand,
so commanding a 2nd-rater was a very important position. For
comparison, the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), pride of
the US Navy, was a 5th-rate heavy frigate.
Also by Turner is this poignant painting of the second-rate (98 gun)
HMS Temeraire, a hero of Trafalgar but now old and obsolete,
being towed by modern technology to the ship-breakers.
Captain Hampton thought the abysmal ocean was
wonderful. The word didn’t mean “extremely
bad” until the 20th century. Before that it had it’s
literal meaning — bottomless.
The bishop was notorious for denouncing the word of
God from the pulpit. Notorious has been beaten to death
already, but “denounce” was originally a synonym of
“announce” or “proclaim” — The new king
was denounced to the people, cocks proverbially denounce the coming of
the new day, God denounced a great flood, etc. (Spanish
denunciar still means to announce.)
Lord B----- challenged Sir J------ to a duel for
saying that he was a very prestigious and pragmatic
humanitarian. As mentioned previously, until the 20th century,
prestige meant trickery or deception, pragmatic meant dictatorial, and
a humanitarian was a sanctimonious hypocrite. Another passage said
The bishop was removed from his position because of
his humanitarian tendencies. In this context it would have
Yesterday a man was hanged for mortifying his
wife. This is another example of the archaic use of a literal
meaning — to mortify is to “make dead”. In addition
to the act of killing, it could also mean to make flesh necrotic or
gangrenous — “The weather was so cold that his toes became
Whenever Lord Redstart told his wife how much he
loved her, she resented his words and retaliated. This was
actually a happy marriage. Once upon a time, to resent was to feel
any emotion strongly, and to retaliate was to reply in kind,
good or bad.
The Earl looked quite fashionable in his pale blue
frock and fine lingerie as he walked through the park. In the
18th and 19th century, frock was used for a gentleman’s coat
with long tails — still called a “frock coat”. The
word originally meant a monk’s habit and then a child’s
dress; the first use for adult female fashion is about 1820. Once upon
a time, lingerie simply meant “linen garment” and could be
outerwear for either sex. The restriction to feminine undergarments is
a euphemism from about 1850.
Lord Redstart’s tailor delivered five pair of
linen panties for his lordship to wear. Until about 1850,
panties were men’s underclothing — what would now be
called underpants or shorts.
“That may be the fattest hog I have ever
seen, but it is unbelievably slim.” Well into the 19th
century, slim retained its original meaning of “sneaky” or
“hard to catch”. It is possibly a member of the
“slip/slide/slime” family. The current sense came from its
common use to describe a fox or a pickpocket.
Astley’s circus has a Husky who can speak
perfect English and French. No, they didn’t have a
talking dog. The word is a perversion of “Eskimo”, which
itself is a phonetic rendition of French “Esquimaux”,
borrowed in turn from Algonkian. It was applied to people long before
the “husky dog”.
Lady Redstart is notorious for her extremely
enormous eyes. As mentioned above, notorious means
“well-known”, good or bad. Enormous started out as a
synonym of “unusual” — literally, “out of the
norm”, ex-norma. In fact, the countess was famous for
her mismatched eyes — one emerald green and one brown. Note that
un-usual, e-normous, un-common, ab-normal, a-typical, un-conventional,
un-natural, ir-regular, and extra-ordinary are all of exactly the same
formation, and eccentric is “ex-center”, out of the
center. Another quotation from the same book could have noted that
Caroline Herschel’s stature is enormous
— she is only four foot three, or Once
upon a time, enormous dwarfs were common at European courts.
Enormous also could mean “outrageous”, as in “He wore an enormous pink waistcoat.”
Cf. “enormity”. (Fans of HBO’s Game of
Thrones would agree that Tyrion Lannister is therefore an
enormous dwarf in two different senses.) PS — outrage has
nothing to do with rage; it’s from outré, the
French version of ultra.
Speaking of enormous dwarves, here in Texas there is a long-standing
tradition of bragging that Texas has the biggest and best of
everything. This has led to an acromonious dispute as to whether
Texas has the world’s largest midgets or the world’s
Shakespeare owned a ten-dollar pair of shoes.
As mentioned elsewhere, “dollar” was British for a
crown, or five-shilling piece, so he paid two and a half pounds, a
pretty hefty price for 1600.
All the members of Sir William’s family died
of the plague, but fortunately his wife and children survived.
Well into the 18th century, family still sometimes had its original
Latin meaning — the [domestic] servants. Cf. a witch’s
familiar. The book could have mentioned that Sir William had a familiar foe who was quite unknown to
him. A “familiar foe” or “familiar
enemy” was a treacherous member of the household, whether
well-known or not. (One of his servants was a spy for his enemies.)
Shakespeare was known to prefer bacon and grits for
breakfast. As mentioned earlier, grits has meant
”coarsely ground oatmeal” since 1584, and bacon goes back
to 1330. (It originally meant any cured pork, so ham was also called
bacon once upon a time. The word, as one might expect, is from
John Wesley was not a religious man.
“Religious” is a member of the “rule” family
and once specifically referred to persons who had taken the vows of a
religious order — monks, nuns, etc. The founder of Methodism
definitely did not qualify.
Lord W---- is no longer admitted to polite society
because he demoralized a debutante he met at Almack’s. It is
even whispered that he might be an amphibian. Before about
1850, demoralize didn’t mean “lower the morale of”,
it meant “lower the morals of”, i.e., to debauch
or corrupt. Amphibian, meanwhile, is from Greek amphi-bios,
both-life. In addition to animals who can live both on land and in
water, it once meant a person who lived a double life, and in
particular, one who was bisexual. (Cf. “ambidextrous”,
which has also been used in slang to describe someone who has twice
the chance of getting a Saturday night date.)
Queen Elizabeth ordered her captains to please
botch all the English ships before the Spanish Armada arrived.
The original meaning of “botch” was to repair. The first
English bible translation has a passage about the Israelites botching
the Temple. (The King James version uses “repair and
emend“ in that passage.) Over time, the word came to mean
“repair badly, and then “bungle”. Most
etymologists think that botch is the same word as “patch”.
Lord Redstart was funky when he finished sparring
with Gentleman Jackson. The literal meaning is
“sweaty” or “strong-smelling”. The jazz sense
only dates from the 1950’s to describe music which was earthy
and raw, as opposed to performances which had been polished or
watered-down for public consumption.
By the end of his European tour, the earl was
thoroughly ionized. In the 19th century, the word Ionize meant
“take on the speech or fashion of the Greek province of
Ionia”. This is a completely different word than the electrical
ion, coined by Faraday from Greek ionai, to go. This book
could have said that Physicists now
realize that most of the universe is unionized. Even with the
physics hint, the brain instinctively reads that word as related to
joining a labor union instead of “un-ionized”, having no
net electrical charge.
In Elizabethan times, the first Earl of Redstart
astounded his neighbor by concurring with him, and the man’s arm
required algebra. The earl himself suffered crucial injuries, but they
were only scratches. The original meaning of
“concur” was straight from the Latin con-currere,
to “run together”, i.e., violently collide. The
“agree” sense is much later. Once upon a time, astonish,
astound, and stun were synonyms — to knock unconscious. See
“stunning” above. The first definition of
“algebra” in English (and Arabic, for that matter) was
“bonesetting” — it means “put together”
in Arabic. Also as mentioned previously, “crucial” once
Lord Redstart will win the race because his
curricle has a more powerful motor than that of his opponent.
As mentioned previously, motor was simply a synonym of mover, so the
earl had a better horse.
The Archbishop of Canterbury organized a lusty orgy
at St. Paul’s cathedral last evening. Orgy retained its
original Greek meaning of “ritual” or
“ceremony” right up to 1900, in addition to the sense of
“revelry” derived from the drunken Dionysian Orgies of
antiquity. An 1899 newspaper reported that the city of Bristol had a
public orgy for some worthy citizen. A hymn of 1744 contains the
Pious orgies, pious airs,
Decent sorrow, decent prayers,
Will to the Lord ascend.
(At that time, decent meant fitting or suitable.) Similarly, lusty
still meant “merry” or “cheerful” as late as
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