Revolutionary Words

Since the Revolutionary period, the English language has greatly expanded and evolved in terms of spelling, usage, punctuation and semantics. Researching Colonial America primary sources can be challenging given this significant change. Scholars must comprehend the intended word meanings in the appropriate historical context as many words have dramatically changed over the last 200 years. Not appropriately interpreting 18th Century English can be lead to critical misconceptions.

For example, George Washington’s correspondence and papers provide illustrations of words with considerably different meanings from our common language today:

“I forgot to inform you in my last letter that blease bay mare I boug at Anderson outcry has got as likely a Hors Colt as any I have seen this yeare.[i]

Christopher Hardwick to George Washington, August 1, 1760

“Genl. Scotts Brigade, McDougall’s, Ritzema’s and Reeds Regiments, to receive Orders at the Laboratory in the morning[ii]

 

George Washington, July 1, 1776, General Orders

“The Hogs at all the Plantations running in the Woods after the Mast, no Acct. could be taken of them.[iii]

 George Washington’s Diary November 16, 1785

“Half the Pioneers and a company of Artificers are to parade as soon as possible near General Glover’s quarters.[iv]

George Washington, October 8, 1780, General Orders

An outcry is a public auction, a laboratory is munitions factory, masts are nuts and pioneers are soldiers who build roads and fortifications.

To help researchers translate from 18th to 21st Century English, Richard M. Lederer, Jr. complied a dictionary entitled the Colonial American English Glossary[v]. Selected words with significantly changed meanings for each letter of the alphabet are listed below. The source is Lederer’s dictionary except where noted. The “A to Z” list is depicted in the Wyld font, one of the leading fonts used in the Colonial press[vi]

Adventurer (n) – One who engages in commercial ventures

Bargain (v) – To make small talk

IMG_0594

Calculate (v) – To expect, suppose, think[vii]

Cartel (n) – An agreement in writing to exchange prisoners

Corks (n) – Steel points under shoes of horses to keep them from falling on ice[viii]

Doom (v) – To tax at taxing authorities discretion[ix]

Dowry (n) The share of a man’s estate that a widow holds for her lifetime

Economist (n) – One who manages domestic concerns frugally

Feather (v) – To curdle[x]

Flying (adj) – Mobile, as applied to military installations and units

Glut (n) – A large wooden wedge[xi]

Gossip (n) – A sponsor, a godparent

Housewife (n)– A pocket or bag for sewing materials

Ignoramus (n)– The refusal of a grand jury to prosecute an indictment

Joiner (n) – A craftsman who did the finish woodwork of a house, also a cabinetmaker

Keep (v) – To stay at the house of any person

Kidney (n) – A temperament, kind, class

Lantern (n)– A half moon shaped fried tart

Maroon (n) – Camping out ( a party on the sea shore)[xii]

Noodle (n) – A silly, naive person

Outhouse (n) – Any building a little distance from the main house

Pinch (n) – A steep portion of a road

Qualify (v) – To ease

Rout (n) – A clamorous party

Sap (v) – In military use, the process of undermining in attacking fortifications, digging beneath to place a mine.

Scruple (v) – To doubt, to question

Solitary (n) – Rare[xiii]

Snug (adj) – Well off

Tell (v) – To count

Trap (n) – A vehicle with two wheels drawn by a horse

Ugly (n) – Ill-tempered, bad[xiv]

Usher (n) – An assistant teacher

Vault (n) – A privy

Win (v) – To Harvest

Wipe (s) – A severe sarcasm

X (n) – One’s signature

Yaws (n) – a disease like syphilis

Zingiber (n) – Ginger

While there were regional differences in semantics and word usage in Revolutionary America, in 1781 John Witherspoon argued in three lectures, that American usage was more uniform than the vulgar in Britain. Witherspoon a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the eventual president of Princeton University postulated that better colonial education and increased regional mobility led to more uniform American vocabulary. He coined the term, “Americanisms” referring to the unique characteristics of American English.[xv]

However, it was not until Noah Webster published his 1st American Dictionary in 1828 that standard “American” spelling and usage was codified. In the last 200 years, American English has continued to evolve, with unpopular usages replaced by new vernacular. Therefore, 18th century primary sources must be read with a regionally appropriate 18th century mind to insure correction interpretation of semantics and word usage.

Please respond with your own favorite examples of revolutionary era words and phrases with dramatically different meanings today, especially those with misleading meanings or if you can identify a better word for Z.

[i] The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(lw030120)) Accessed December 20, 2014

[ii] John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. George Washington, July 1, 1776, General Orders http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw050193)) accessed December 21, 2014

[iii] Donald Jackson, and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington. Vol. 4. , The Papers of George Washington. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mgw:14:./temp/~ammem_eI0t, page 231, accessed December 20, 2014

[iv] John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. October 8, 1780, General Orders, http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/mgw:@field(DOCID+@lit(gw200158)), accessed December 21, 2014.

[v] Richard M. Lederer, Jr., Colonial American English (Essex, CT: A Verbatim Book, 1985)

[vi] David Manthey provides a modern approximation of the Wlyd font. See website

http://www.orbitals.com/self/ligature/ligature.htm to download a copy into your word processing program.

[vii] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases: Which Have Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America (Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1816), p. 54

[viii] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 71

[ix] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 82

[x] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 201

[xi] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 97

[xii] Pickering defines as a party on the sea shore, p. 129

[xiii] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 177

[xiv] John Pickering, A Vocabulary; or Collection of Words and Phrases, p. 191

[xv] Richard M. Hogg, ed., The Cambridge History of the English Language, p. 6:68

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