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John Dierdorf, dierdorf@prismnet.com

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 xenophobia could 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 describe penicillin.

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 “Swine Flew!”)

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.

Important Disclaimer

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.
allergy, allergic
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 two.)
1889. This is a good example of a soft anachronism, since the adjective “ambient” has meant “surrounding” since about 1600.
Angel Falls
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. Cf. “regardless”.
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 “Arab”!)
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.)
as if
Not used in English until 1892. (It’s a translation of German als ob, a philosophy term for a supposition not to be taken literally.)
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 plural” mistakes.
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 1901.
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 the food.
barge [in]
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 "weaker vessel".
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 II.
An Americanism first recorded in 1836. Not used in England until the 1860’s.
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 unbleached linen.
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 jaw.)
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.
Big Dipper
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 glass.
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 “sister”.
1895. Its cousin necropsy appears in 1842. Autopsy (q.v.) is much older, though.
birthday party
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 satin”.
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”, etc.
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.
black death
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 until 1858.
bleeding heart
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 York.
1861. Possibly from Gypsy or Hindi, where loke means “man”.
blonde lace
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 Ascot instead.
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.)
booby trap
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.
bosoms (plural)
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 bottleneck.
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 rough roads.
Boxing Day
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 fasting.
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 “porridge”.)
bubonic plague
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 “bind” word.)
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 scholars.
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 variety.
1866 in the current undergarment sense. 1816 as a sleeved jacket. It’s a diminutive of chemise (q.v.), a much older word.
1917. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it used in several Regency-era books.
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 Punch.
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.
Primitive human, 1865. Crude lover (club, dragging by hair …), 1920’s cartoons.
celebrity, celebration
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 in 1619.
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”. Also see shimmy.
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.
chocolate milk
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. The cholera 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 cholesterol.)
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.
Christmas carols
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 novel. Yet.

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 was “slot”.
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 mechanism.)
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 sickbed.
Clink [prison]
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 older, though.
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.
combination lock
Invented in 1845.
1857, evidently as a back-formation from the obsolete Latin legal term “condonation”.
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 “conquer”.
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 kutu.
Patented and trademarked in 1889 as a smokeless replacement for black gunpowder.
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 bone.

Invented by a press agent in 1936 to describe Mae West.
As applied to the female figure (“voluptuous curves”), 1862.
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.
cut-throat razor
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 gentle mood.

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. divorcée.
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.
de luxe
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 lewdness”.
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.
  1. There was no country of South Africa until 1910 (the British possession was known as Cape Colony).
  2. Diamonds were not discovered in the region until 1871.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 even today.)
  5. In the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, nobody owned a diamond mine unless they happened to be named De Beers or (possibly) Rhodes.

(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 Canadian sources.
The first known use of the word was in a US patent in 1847.
double chin
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 years.
1919, an American word borrowed from Pennsylvania Dutch dunken, to dip. German-American Baptists were often known as Dunkers.
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 elaboratory.)
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 simply “run”.
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 French.
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 “special”.
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, etc.)
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 hill”.)
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 1862.
To drive a carriage, this is Heyer again, and not in the dictionary.
field day
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.
firing pin
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.
first stare
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, however.
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 that sentence.)

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 it.”

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 campaign.”
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 naturae.
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 cannibal.
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.
grandfather clock
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 Shakespeare.
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”.)
grog, groggy
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 century.)
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 adult.
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 1925.
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 wars.
As a verb, to pawn, it’s American slang from 1878.
1773 as an adjective, translating German heimweh. (“Homesick-feelingly” is somewhat earlier — German heimweh-fühlerlich.)
1851 in the United States. Not recorded in Britain until 1920.
1892, in Krafft-Ebing. See masochism, sadism, etc.
1898 (USA).
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 meaning.)
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 newborn.
intelligence agency
First used in the title of the CIA in 1951. “Intelligence office” goes back to the 17th century, though, in the same sense.
About 1880, borrowed from the nickname of a hard-nosed Spanish political party of the time, Los Intransigentes, “The Uncompromising”.
1838, although “ire” was first used in 1300.
ivory tower
As a symbol of seclusion from real life, 1837 in French (tour d’ivoire) and 1911 in English.
Jerusalem (hymn)
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 “abduct”.
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 britches.)
Lame duck
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.)
Law Lords
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.
lawn tennis
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, Wimbledon”.)

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 lifetime.
ley [line]
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 “lea”, countryside.)
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 women’s underclothing.
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 it.”
loaf, loafer
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 1939.
Coined in 1879. Speaking about the logistics of Waterloo is therefore a bad idea.
Applied to a human couple and not real birds, 1911.
love seat
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.
madam, madame
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.)
masochism, masochistic
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.)
mass hysteria
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 magenta.
Melba toast
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 approved.
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 the world”.
muslin trade
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 “mythe”.)
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.
Used once in 1822. Otherwise the whole narciss- family (narcissist, narcissistic, etc.) were coined by Freud about 1915 to denote excessive self-admiration or vanity.
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.
noblesse oblige
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.
novels [popular]
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 English English.
First used in 1929 for a singer “who had great difficulty moving her vowels”. Not until 1943 to mean inappropriate or jarring.
off limits
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.
opera glass
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 behavior.
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 “foundling house”.
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.

“I know.”

“They [her brothers] really will break my legs if I don’t.”

“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 studied Latin.”

“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 anachronism, q.v.
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 “impure”.
Paddy [rice]
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 flower.
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 trousers.”
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 president, etc.)
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, etc.)
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 “Polish”.
[air] pollution
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.
pom, pommy
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 Dictionary.)
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.
pox, the
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 vicinity.)
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 cloak.)
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 charisma above.
prima donna
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.
Prince Charming
1850, as a character in a play called, logically enough, King Charming.
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 be “relyuponable”.)
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 cowboy reloading.)
Rifles, 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 weather.)
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.
sadism, sadistic
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.
San Francisco
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 California“.

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 “natural”.)
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. “spiritualism” below.
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 discovery).
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 the shimmy”.
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. In the book, 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 1927.
show off
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 re the Battle of Britain: “…great numbers of shell splinters usually described most erroneously as shrapnel, will be falling in the streets.”
shut up
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 person.
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 Religion”.
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 slumming”, etc.)
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, it might be a compression of "nabob"; if not, the origin is unknown. Cf. “nib” (“his nibs”) in the same sense.)

Nob Hill in San Francisco is originally called California Hill, but renamed after the railroad tycoons built mansions there.

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”.
sovereign (coin)
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 today’s money.)

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”.
sprig muslin
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.
See flout/flaunt.
stub [a toe]
1848 as an Americanism; not adopted in Britain until the 20th century.
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”, too.)
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 sense.
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 Ages, though.
town bronze
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 up.
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 “tread”.
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 — “psychic traumata”.
treasure hunt
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 1750.
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.)
It’s Chinese and then Japanese for “great lord” and was the term used for the shogun, beginning in 1857. Within a very short time, it was generalized to any rich, powerful, or dominate person. (The first person so-called seems to have been Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, but now it’s almost exclusively used for a powerful business executive.)
The word meant “bitch” or “mongrel” from the 1300’s. It wasn’t transferred from canines to small children until 1902.
type, typical
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”.
Ugly duckling
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 even later.
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 quotes.
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 literal flower.
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 lawyer”.)
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 or kill.
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 “bulimia”.
1593. (See psychology for another early word with which it was often associated.)
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).
Back yard
(of a house) 1659.
ballistic missile
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 rounders.)
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 structures elsewhere.
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 be”.
About 1400. (It’s in a version of Morte Arthur — “Charottez [chariots] chokkefulle charegyde with golde.”) “Chock” is an alternative spelling of “choke”.
Christmas tree
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 thief.”
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 dirigible”.
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.)
Easy chair
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”.
fountain pen
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 Zoo.)
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.
goody two-shoes
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 1731.
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 1652.
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.
Lite beer
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” was pronounced.

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 “stinking”.

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.)
Mad at
1702. “Mad with” dates from 1577 and “mad upon” is in the 1539 Bible (Psalm 102), all in the sense of angry with.
Mardi gras
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.
merry widow
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.
Open sesame
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.
penny post
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 until 1840.
1786 in the modern sense — see the discussion of “claustrophobia” above.
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.
plastic surgery
pot pie
1702, defined as “cubes of meat in a pot covered by a layer of dough”.
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.
practical joke
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 man.
puff paste/pastry
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.
real thing
“He’s the real thing”, meaning genuine, was first used in 1818.
1611. Even earlier, a cooling mechanism was called a refrigeratory.
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 choice.
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.)
skim milk
In Shakespeare.
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 spine.
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.)
tin foil
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 almost 1900.
twenty questions
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 Undertaker.”
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.)
washing machine
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 “juicy”.
“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 double-entente.
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. “painstaking”.
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.
Queen Victoria was proud of a medal she had won as a child for correctly naming all eleven planets of the solar system. The four largest asteroids (Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta) were discovered between 1801 and 1807, and no more were found for almost forty years, so they were regarded as planets. Neptune was described as the 12th planet when discovered in 1846. In the late 1840’s, many smaller objects began to be found in similar orbits, and astronomers realized that the four smallest “planets” were simply the largest members of a huge community — currently over 500,000 have known orbits. This flock became known as “asteroids” (a term which had been proposed by Herschel clear back in 1802), reducing the number of planets to eight.
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 uninteresting.
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 improper novel.
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, male or female, 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 sequestered life.
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 19th century.
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”, probably referring to 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 with artifice.
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 plaga, net.)
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. “plaster”.
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 “flea-colored”.)
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. Cf. “fabricate”. 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 saying “spiritual”.
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; she 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 stories.)
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 dinner.
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 were vulgar.
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 a mouse.)
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 candidate.
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 embroidery.
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 “make justice”.
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 on this.
According to Wellington’s dispatches, Colonel Thompson heroically kicked up his heels at Waterloo. As mentioned in the Anachronism section earlier, the unfortunate colonel was killed.
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 to Penicillin.
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 under fire.
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 about 1850.
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 sovereignty.
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 water.)
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…
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 “inject”.
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 females.)
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 Christmas.)
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 devotion.
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 Spartans.)

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 fighter.
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 seven or eight 1st-rate and fifteen or twenty 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 meant “Unitarian”.
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 mortified.”
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 smallest.

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 “back”.)
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 meant ✕-shaped.
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 lines,
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 the 1890’s.

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