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Colonial Dictionary

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.

-- The Colonial Sense Team

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Energy; activity; capability. Shortened from audacity; Latin audax, audacem, spirited. Sampson in THE VOW BREAKER (1636) declared: I have plaid a major in my time with as good dacity as ere a hobby-horse on 'em all.


Things, according to Bailey (1751) "which excite tears from their acrimony, as onions, horseradish, and the like." A number of English medical terms have been formed from Greek dacry, tear. Hence, dacryopoetic, producting or causing tears, like a 'tear-jerker' screen-play.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- using a suspended ring.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- using finger rings.


Rotted wood. Blount (1674), and Bailey after him, call it "the heart or body of a tree thoroughly rotten," and suggest the word is a corruption of dead oak. Its etymology is unknown.


Skilful, inventive. From Daedalus, the legendary inventor and architect, who built the Labyrinth for the Minotaur in Crete. When King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus (they first devised the Labyrinth, then showed Ariadne how Theseus could escape from it) , Daedalus fashioned wings on which they flew away. Despite his father's warning, the presumptuous Icarus flew too near the sun; his wings melted off, and he fell into what was thereafter known as the Icarian Sea. Daedalus landed safely in Sicily. The word daedal was also applied to the earth, as inventive of many forms; variously adorned, as in Spenser's THE FAERIE QUEENE (1596): Then doth the daedale earth throw -forth to thee Out of her fruitful lap abundant flowers. Hence also daedalian, skilful, ingenious. Both these forms are also occasionally used in the sense of labyrinthine, mazy -- as daedalian arguments; or as in Keats' ENDYMION: By truth's own tongue, I have no daedal heart! Hence daedalize, to make intricate.


(1) A person deficient in sense or in courage; one who is daft. So Chaucer, in THE REEVE'S TALE (1396). Hence to daff, to play the fool; to make sport of. (2) to remove, to take off. A variant of doff, to do off. Thus Shakespeare in THE LOVER'S COMPLAINT (1597) has There my white stole of chastity I daff'd. Hence, to thrust aside, as Shakespeare in HENRY IV, PART ONE (1596) speaks of Prince Hal that daft the world aside; or to put off, as in OTHELLO (1604) : Every day thou dafts me with some device, Iago. Daffing the world aside was a frequent phrase, after Shakespeare. Johnson, misunderstanding Shakespeare's usage, erroneously taking the past form for the present, put in his DICTIONARY (1755) a non-existent verb, to daft.


A poetic-- and to some extent still a popular -- form of daffodil, which itself is a variant of affodill, which is a corruption of asphodel, which is directly from Greek asphodelos. Strew me the ground with daffadowndillies, cried Spenser in THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR (1579); the inevitable rhyme appears in Henry Constable's poem DAIPHENIA (1592) : Diaphenia like the daffadowndilly, White as the sun, fair as the lily, Heigh ho, how I do love thee! Fair flower of spring.


A pendant; anything short and pointed, as the straight horn of a young stag. Diminutive of dagger, from French dague, dagger. Hence (1) the points of a cloak or dress slashed at the bottom as an ornament (Chaucer and the 15th century) . (2) The top of a shoelace (I5th to 18th century). (3) A lock of wool about the hinder parts of a sheep, dirty and draggling. (4) A hand-gun or heavy pistol (of the 16th to the 18th century). In the 16th and 17th century dag and dagger was a frequent phrase; Johnson (1751) hence mistakenly defined dag as dagger. For an instance of its use, see slop. Note, however, French dague, dagger; and to dag meant to stab (14th century) before it meant to shoot. There is also a word dag of Norse origin, used from the 17th century (and in dialects) to mean dew, or a gentle rain or mist.


As a noun. Estimation, honor; delight, joy. By extension, fastidiousness. Old French dainté, pleasure, titbit; Latin dignitatem, worthiness; dignus, worthy, whence also dignity, indignation. (Eliezer Edwards, in WORDS, FACTS, AND PHRASES, 1881, says that the first meaning of dainty was a venison pasty, from French daine, a deer. A pleasant thought, but oh dear!) In the sense of fastidiousness, Shakespeare has, in HENRY IV, PART TWO (1597) : The King is wearie Of daintie, and such picking grievances. As joy, Dunbar in TWA MARYIT WEMEN (1508) : Adew, dolour, adew! my daynte now begynis. Also, to make dainty, to hold back, scruple, refuse. Shakespeare has, in ROMEO AND JULIET: ah ha, my mistresses! which of you all Will now deny to dance? She that makes dainty, she, Til swear, hath corns.


The Bellis perennis, "a familiar and favorite flower," says the O.E.D. Old English daeyes eage, day's eye; its white petals fold in at night, hiding its central sun until the dawning. In olden times, it was an emblem of fidelity; knights and ladies wore them at tourneys, and Ophelia gathered them, to be strewn on her grave. There is indeed beauty, as Spenser sees it in THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR (1579) in the grassye ground with daintye daysies dight.


Color-blindness; especially, inability to discriminate red and green. From John Dalton, English chemist (1766- 1844), who developed the atomic theory -- and was afflicted with color-blindness. The word was first used (1827) by Prof. Pierre Prevost of Geneva; it was objected to by the British, in that it associates a great name with a physical defect (as though the crippling from infantile paralysis were called Rooseveltism); the word is therefore seldom used in English, though daltonisme is the current French term. A daltonian is a person afflicted with color-blindness.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- using a laurel tree, or branch therefrom.


One who serves at table; a steward; a waiter. Latin dapem, feast (see dapatical) + ferre, to bear. A 17th and 18th century word.


Mean-spirited; of little worth. A 17th century term (accented on the cadge) from Italian dapoco, of little (value).


A crustade, q.v. From the 14th century; but by 1650 the recipe had changed and a dariole was a cream tart. In that sense Scott revived the word in QUENTIN DURWARD (1823): Ordering confections, darioles, and any other light dainties he could think of.


An umpire, a mediator. Day, as a verb, meant (1) to dawn; in this sense, also daw. (2) to appoint or set a day; hence, to appoint a time for decision, for arbitration. Thus also dayment, daying (15th to 17th century), arbitration. Lupton in 1580 uttered a sound lament: to spende all . . , that money and put it to dayment at last. Hervey in his MEDITATIONS (1747) wrote that Death, like some able daysman, has laid his hand on the contending parties.


Concealed, latent. Latin de, away + latescere, inceptive of latere, to lie hid, whence latent. Used from the 17th century; also delitescence, delitescency. The Preface to an 1805 reprint of Brathwait's DRUNKEN BARNABY speaks of republishing this facetious little book after a delitescency of near a hundred years. Sir William Hamilton in his LECTURES ON METHAPHYSICS (1837) declared: The immense proportion of our intellectual possessions consists of our delitescent cognitions.


Behavior; treatment (of others). Spenser in THE FAERIE QUEENE (1596) has: All the vile demeane and usage bad, With which he had those two so ill bestad. Cp. bestad. The early form of demeanor. Also a verb, to behave; manage; employ; deal with. The sense of demean, to lower, developed about the 18th century, probably by analogy with debase; the earlier and natural English form for this sense is bemean, which was superseded by demean.


A belt of gold or silver in front, silk or other material behind; a girdle with ornamental work only in front, Latin demi, half; Old French ceint, Latin cinctum, girdle; cingere, cinctum, to bind; cp. ceint. Also dymysen, dymison, demicent. Many 15th and 16th century records refer to such items as a dymysen with a red crosse harnossid with silver wrought with golds; my dymyson gyrdylle and my coralle beydes.

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