This section is an ongoing project dedicated to the words of the Colonial Era. Granted, many of these words would not be used at the local tavern, but may well have been employed in more learned circles. In addition to words used then that are not used now, we also include words that may still be around whose meanings have changed since early America.
Whenever possible, we try to provide a full etymological background of each entry, as well as examples of usage from then-current literature.
Though we use a wide variety of resources for this project, we'd be remiss not to mention Dictionary of Early English by Joseph T. Shipley (Introduction by Mark Van Doren), which you can find in its entirety HERE, readable online, or as a downloadable .pdf file...
Please Contact Us if you have any additions (that we haven't added yet -- this is a work-in-progress) or corrections to these entries...we hope you find this Colonial Dictionary interesting and useful.
An early variant of baboon. From the French; also babian, babioun. Used in the 17th century as a contemptuous term for a person. Massinger in THE PARLIAMENT OF LOVE (1624) says Farewell, babions! Also bavian, in which form the word appeared in Dutch. The bavian was a frequent comic figure in the old morris dance, where his long tail and tumbling antics added much to the jollity.
Revelry; drunkenness. From the Bacchantes, revelers at the festival of Bacchus, Roman god of wine (and father of Hymenaeus, god of marriage) . There is also a verb, to bacchanalize (accent on the first syllable), as well as the adjective bacchant. Thus Thomas Moore in his translation (1800) of the ODES of Anacreon: Many a roselipped bacchant maid Is culling clusters in their shade; and Byron in DON JUAN (1821) : Over his shoulder, with a bacchant air, Presented the o'erflowing cup. The word bacchanal, still used of the revel (bacchanalia) was earlier used of the reveling person; by extension, one whose emotions are out of control. Thus Nashe in NASHES LENTEN STUFFE, OR THE PRAYSE OF THE RED HERRING (1599) tells jestingly the story of Hero and Leander, which Musaeus (500 A.D.) and Marlowe (1598) had more seriously told. Nashe ends, when the tide carries the corpse of Leander away: At that Hero became a franticke bacchanal outright, and made no more bones but sprang after him, and so resigned up her priesthood, and left worke for Musaeus and Kit Marlowe.
Berry-eating; living mainly on berries. Latin bacca, berry. The accent is on the siv. Also bacciferous, berry-bearing; bacciform, shaped like a berry.
A blow, a drubbing. In the 16th century. So O.E.D. Bace was also a variant of base, as the name of an old game, later called prisoners' bars, prisoners' base. By act of Parliament during the reign of Edward III, playing bace was prohibited in the avenues of Westminster palace while Parliament was in session. Spenser in THE FAERIE QUEENE (1596) says: So ran they all as they had been at bace, They being chased that did the others chase.
Stand backl The origin is unknown; "Back there!"? At times spelt bacare, baccare and pronounced in three syllables, like a yokel pretending to Latin, Shakespeare, in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (1596): Bacare, you are mervaylous forward. The word appeared in a proverbial saying, Backare, quoth Mortimer to his sow.
A pretender, a false friend; an enemy masked as a friend. From the 15th century. I have had backfriends, said Southey (LIFE; 1827) , as well as enemies. By a few in the 16th century, and Scott in QUENTIN DURWARD (1823) backfriend was used in the opposite sense, of a backer, a friend standing firmly at one's back.
A wine from Bacharach, a town on the Rhine; the flavor was much appreciated in the 17th century. Hence also bacharach, backrak, bachrag, bachrach. Fletcher and Massinger's THE BEGGAR'S BUSH (1620) has: My fireworks and flap-dragons and good backrack.
The line of the flagellant. Relating to the rod, or to punishment by flogging. Thackeray in THE VIRGINIANS (1858) states that the baculine method was a common mode of argument. Bacul was used in the 15th century for a religious staff or crosier. From Latin baculus, a rod, the symbol of power, also used in English. Hence baculiferous, bearing a cane, like the dandy of yore. The common bacillus was named from its shape: Latin bacillus, little rod; diminutive of baculus. Baculometry, says Bailey in his DICTIONARY (1751), is the art of measuring accessible or inaccessible distances or lines, by one or more staves.
Frivolous, jesting. Via French badine, silly, from Late Latin badare, to gape. Its only literary use is in F. Spence's translation (1685) of THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE HOUSE OF MEDICIS: a dialog completely bouffon, waggish, and badeen, between the head and the cap. The noun from the same source remains in use, as in Disraeli's ENDYMION (1880), which warns: Men destined to the highest places should beware of badinage. We have used other forms: the verb to badiner -- a character in Vanbrugh's THE RELAPSE (1697) wishes that Loveless were here to badiner a little; badinerie -- Shenstone, in his WORKS AND LETTERS (1712) laments that the fund of sensible discourse is limited; that of jest and badinerie is infinite; badineur -- Pope wrote to Swift, on December 19, 1734: Rebuke him for it ... as a badineur, if you think that more effectual. Many a badeen badger (q.v.) has built a reputation on a caustic tongue, as in the play THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER; the more insulting he is, the more his sycophants -- and the audience -- laugh.
An old title, lower than baron, superior to bachelor and knight: a knight entitled to bring a company of vassals into the field under his own banner. From Old French baneret, bannered; cp. bandon. Later the title was awarded on the battlefield, for valiant deeds in the king's presence. Sometimes, when this occurred, the knight's pennon was cut to the shape of a banner (square) whence the suggestion in Sir William Segar's HONOR, MILITARY AND CIVIL (1602) : I suppose the Scots do call a knight of this creation a Bannerent, for having his banner rent. The official English heralds have not allowed the title since 1612, the year after the rank of baronet was created.
A brat; a young child. Drayton in his ECLOGUES (1593) pictures lovely Venus . . . Smiling to see her wanton bantlings game. More often the word is a term of scorn; originally it meant bastard, probably a corruption of German bankling, begotten on a bench. Thus, in FATHER KNICKERBOCKER'S HISTORY OF NEW YORK (1809) Washington Irving mentions a tender virgin, accidentally and unaccountably enriched with a bantling. The word is also used figuratively, as when Byron wrote, in a letter of 1808: The interest you have taken in me and my poetical bantlings ... These, who has not had?
From the Spanish barbacoa, perhaps from Arawak (West Indies) barbacoa "wooden frame on posts," on which people slept or used to cook meat. By 1733, it had come to mean a social gathering in the open where animals were roasted.
Originally, this was a threshing floor, Old English bere~tun, barley enclosure. Then it was used of a farm yard; especially, of the farm a lord kept for his own use. It was also applied to a chicken coop or larger pen, but the lord kept claim (1783) to the eggs of the bartons of his demesne. A book on HUSBANDRY by George Winter (1787) declares that stale urine and barton draining are greatly preferable to dung. In contrast, we are told of a fine grove of Scotch and silver fir on the barton of Bridestow. And Southey in THE POET'S PILGRIMAGE TO WATERLOO (1816) speaks of Spacious bartons clean, well-wall'd around, Where all the wealth of rural life was found.
(1) To fight, to contend with blows or arguments. In the latter mood, replaced by debate. Also, to beat the wings (as a falcon or hawk) and flutter away from the perch. Hence, to be restless or impatient. Shakespeare in ROMEO AND JULIET (1592) bids night Hood my unmann'd blood, bayting in my cheekes. (2) To beat or flutter down; to end. In R. Brunne's CHRONICLE (1330) we read: Bated was the strife. Also, to cast down; hence, to humble, depress; to be dejected; to lower, reduce, lessen. In these senses, a shortening of abate. At bate, at odds, contending. The word is frequent in Shakespeare, in various senses. Hence bated breath, subdued breathing, bateless, that cannot be blunted; Shakespeare in THE RAPE OF LUCRECE (1593) has: Haply that name of chaste unhappily set This bateless edge on his keen appetite. bateful, quarrelsome, batement, lessening, abatement. bate-breeding, quarrel making, inciting to strife; Shakespeare in VENUS AND ADONIS speaks of This sour informer, this bate-breeding spy.
Deep-bosomed. Also bathykolpic; Greek bathos, deep + kolpos, breast. Both forms have been used spelled with uk, yc, uc. The word bathos, descent from the sublime to the ridiculous, springs from Pope's satire BATHOS, THE ART OF SINKING IN RHETORIC (1728) , a travesty of Longinus' essay ON THE SUBLIME. Hence bathetic, fashioned after pathetic; also bathotic. While a plain and direct road is paved to their hypsos, or sublime, said Pope, no track has been yet chalked out to arrive at our bathos, or profund. Other words formed with bathy-, deep, include: bathyal, of the deeper regions of the sea; bathybic, dwelling in the deeps, also bathypelagic.bathylimnetic, living at the bottom of a marsh or lake, like the ondines.
A flat-sided stick with a handle, for beating clothes. Shakespeare in AS YOU LIKE IT (1600) has: I remember the kissing of her batler. Later editions say batlet, as though a diminutive of bat. The battledore was originally a batler or beetle, sometimes cylindrical for mangling, but usually flat. Hence, other instruments of that shape: a paddle, a wood for putting loaves into an oven; especially, a small bat for hitting the shuttlecock in the game also called battledore. Other forms of this word, common from the 15th century, were batylledore, batyndore, batteldoor, and the like. The word was also used figuratively, as by Lowell in 1879: So they two played at wordy battledore. The game, once vigorously enjoyed, has been replaced by tennis, ping-pong (table tennis) and, especially badminton. Badminton, from the country seat of the Duke of Beaufort, was also in the 19th century the name of a drink, a 'grateful compound' of claret, sugar, and soda-water. The shuttlecock (also shittlecock, shoottlecock, and more) was a piece of cork tufted with feathers, used as far back as the 15th century, and is used frequently (literally and figuratively) by poets and playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries who, as Sears said later (1858) in ATHANASIA, were only playing at shuttlecock with words.
In addition to the too well known activity named by this word, to battle meant to furnish with battlements, and also -- quite apart -- to nourish, supply with rich pasture or food; also, to make soil fertile; hence, to grow fat, to thrive. In this sense the word was also spelled batle, battel, and is related to batten. The adjective battle meant nourishing; fertile, fruitful. Douglas in his AENEIS (1513) spoke of battill gras, fresche erbis and grene suardis. Hence also batling pastures (battling, batteling) , nourishing, fertilizing; growing fat; Fuller in A PISGAH-SIGHT OF PALESTINE (1650) exclaimed: A jolly dame, no doubt, as appears by the well-battling of the plump boy.
Joyous; forward; gay. Old French baud, gay; Old Low German bald, bold, lively. The adjective was used in THE ROMANCE OF THE ROSE (1400) ; the noun baudery (q.v.), jollity, was more frequent. There is also a verb bawdefy, to bedeck, to make gay. Somehow, in the transfer from French to English, bawd -- perhaps compounded with bawd, earlier bad, a cat, a pussy, a rabbit, used in slang senses -- came to be applied to a pander. Shakespeare in ROMEO AND JULIET (1592) cries A baud, a baud! meaning a hare; but in AS YOU LIKE IT (1600) he has Touchstone tell Audrey We must be married, or we must live in baudrey. The earliest form of bawd in the sense of pander (male or female) is bawdstrot; this became bawstrop and, especially in the plays of Middleton, bronstrops, as in A FAIR QUARREL (1617) : I say thy sister is a bronstrops.
Brushwood; especially, a bundle of light wood (as for bakers' ovens) tied with one withe or band; a fagot is tied with two. The word was used figuratively, of slight things, as in Chapman's EASTWARD HOE (1605) : If he outlast not a hundred such crackling bavins as thou art; and Shakespeare's HENRY IV, PART ONE (1596): Shallow jesters, and rash bavin wits, Soon kindled and soon burnt.