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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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Wandering of one's thoughts: listed in the 15th century as a 'branch' of accidia, one of the seven deadly sins. See accidie. In the 17th century, evagation was used of a more literal wandering, as of clouds or (they feared) of planets. It was also then applied to a digression (in speech or writing) and to a (pleasant) departure from propriety, as when Walton (1638) remarked: You married men are deprived of these evagations.


That which grows out, as hair, nails, feathers. By extension, an excessive outgrowth, as when Warner in ALBION'S ENGLAND (1606) says that wit so is wisedomes excrement. Shakespeare uses the word in THE COMEDY OF ERRORS: Why is Time such a niggard of hair, being as it is so plentiful an excrement? and in LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (1588) : It will please his grace to dallie with my excrement, with my mustachio. The word is from Latin excrementum; ex, out + crescere, to grow; it has been replaced by excrescence. The excrement that survives is from Latin ex + cernere, cretum, to sift, whence also secrete, secret, secretary, secretion; concern, discern, and the frequent indiscretion.


Keeping watch. From Latin ex, out + cubare, to lie down; cumbere, to lie; cp. succubus. An excubitor is a sentinel; G. White observed, in 1775, that the swallow is the excubitor to the housemartins ... announcing the approach of birds of prey.


(1) To shake off, get rid of (as dust, or undesired qualities). (2) To shake out the contents; hence, to investigate; to probe the truth from someone. (3) In 18th century law, to shake out one's property, i.e., to take a man's goods for debt. From Latin excutere, excussus; ex, out + quatere, to shake. (In Latin the verb also meant to search by shaking one's robe.) The word was often in religious mouths, especially in the 17th century, as when Bishop Hall (1620) spoke of the just excussion of that servile yoke.


Action. A blunder of Mistress Quickly, in a legal matter, in Shakespeare's HENRY IV, PART TWO (1597) : I pray ye, since my exion is entered . . . let him be brought in to his answer.


Rousing; that which causes one to awake. The noun was used in THE MECHANIC'S MAGAZINE of 1823, of an early alarm clock: The newly invented hydraulic expergefactor rings a bell at the time when a person wishes to rise. From Latin expergefacere; expergere, to arouse + facere, to make. Ex is used as an intensive; so is per in pergere, to make haste, continue; regere, to lead straight, to guide. The action of awakening someone, or the state of being aroused, is expergefaction. Used since the 17th century; Howell in THE PARLEY OF BEASTS (1660) says that he, after such a long noctivagation . . . returned to my perfect expergefaction. R. North, in his LIVES (1734) coined a new form: I should perceive a plain expergiscence though I had no sense of drowsiness.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- using the entrails, usually plucked from a fowl. Urquhart in his translation (1693) of Rabelais, uses the form extispicine; Bailey (1751) has extispice; the most frequent form is extispicy. One that inspected the entrails of the sacrificial victims was an extispex, from Latin exta (used also in English), entrails + specere, spex-, to look at.


To wander, figuratively: away from; into; at will; beyond proper bounds. Latin extra, beyond, outside + vagari, to wander, whence vagrant. Also the current extravagance, a spending beyond proper bounds. Also extravage, to go beyond the sphere of duty; to talk off the subject, to ramble; used in the 17th and 18th centuries, Wordsworth in THE PRELUDE (1805) speaks of schemes In which his youth did first extravagate.


Burning up. S. Parker, speaking (1720) of the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, said: The frightful effects which this exustion left are still remaining. Some think the wrathful divine exustion has begun again. The verb exust, to burn up, was used into the 19th century; the form exust was also used as an adjective, burnt or dried up. From Latin ex, out + urere, ustum, to burn; whence also combustion. Also exustible, capable of being consumed by fire.


Cast skins, shells and other coverings of animals; figuratively, cast-off articles of apparel. Thackeray in CATHERINE (1840) looks at the old-clothes man and wonders at the load of exuvial coats and breeches under which he staggers. FRASER'S MAGAZINE in 1855: Crabs of mature age and full size cease to exuviate. Huxley in 1880: The young crayfish exuviate two or three times in the course of the first year.

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