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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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Awry, crooked. From the Celtic; Welsh cam, crooked; hence (also in English) cam, perverse, obstinate. Shakespeare, Motteux (in his translation, 1708, of Rabelais) used the k form, which Johnson gives in his DICTIONARY (1755). Clean kam, also kim kam, quite crooked, perverse, contrary to the purpose; Shakespeare has, in CORIOLANUS (1607): This is clean kamme. The 17th century might say: Everything went kim kam, or all this chim-cham stuff. Hence also the verb kimbo, to set awry; crooked -- like an arm akimbo. Richardson in CLARISSA (1748) thinks it ill for a wife to come up with kemboed arm. May you not have to cry, as Aubrey in 1692: This year all my businesses and affairs ran kim-kam.


An Indian dish much favored by the English in the 18th and 19th centuries: rice boiled with split pulse, onions, eggs, butter, and condiments. The English variety usually added cold fish, but served it hot. In the 17th century it was simpler: kitsery, pounded beans and rice boiled together. Also cutchery, ketchery, quicharee. Often served as part of the English breakfast.


A lump of fat, the fat of a slaughtered animal rolled into a lump. In Shakespeare: HENRY IV, PART TWO: Did not goodwife Keech the butchers wife come in then? In HENRY VIII (referring to Cardinal Wolsey, son of a butcher) : I wonder That such a keech can with his very bulke Take up the rayes o' th' beneficiall sun And keepe it from the earth. Some commentators on HENRY IV, PART ONE explain tallow catch as tallow keech.


As a verb, to cool. From the 9th century; Old English coelan; a common Teutonic form, koljan, whence also cool. Hence, to cool a hot liquid by stirring; by extension, to cool the passions, make less violent or ardent, to mitigate, lessen; to cool down, to lessen, grow less; HOW A MERCHANDE DYD HYS WYFE BETRAY (1460) said: The marchandys care began to kele. Shakespeare's song in LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (1588) runs While greasie Joane doth keele the pot. The HALI MEIDENHAD (1230) urges the man to kele thi lust, and a PENITENTIAL PSALM of 1508 sought to kele the hete of unlawful desyre. Thus in MERLIN (1450), The kynge yet was not keled of the love of the stiwardes wif.


A bargeman.


A wooden pencil. Also keelie vine; keelivine pen, a pencil. Keel was a reddish iron-ore used (15th to 19th century) for marking sheep. Vine referred to the wood (cedar) into which the keel (and later, lead) was put. The word was used in the 18th and 19th centuries; it also took the form killow, which in the 17th century (Johnson, 1755, also gives cullow; collow meant soot) was used to mean graphite. FRASER'S MAGAZINE of October 1833 has: In a hole he had jocktolegs, keelavine-pens ... or whatever else he could purloin.


As a noun. Care, attention; to nim (take, give) keep, to take notice; hence, care in watching. Hence, a place for keeping something, a cupboard, a meat-safe (to keep flies from flesh In summer: 17th century), a reservoir for fish; a clasp, button, or lock. Especially (translating Italian tenazza, hold) , the innermost, strongest, central tower of a castle, which served as the last defence; a stronghold. Thus Burke in a letter of 1796: Like the proud keep of Windsor rising in majesty of proportion, and girt with the double belt of its kindred and coeval towers. Scott gave the word fresh life for historical stories.


An early form of comb, which replaced it (also kemm) by the 17th century. See compt. The form kemb developed several meanings: to beat; to lacerate with a rake or comb; figuratively, to smooth, make elegant, as in Chaucer, THE SQUIRE'S TALE (1586) : So peyntcd he and kembde at point devis As wel hise wordes as his countenannce. Whence also kempt, combed, surviving In unkempt, kempster, a comber (of wool) , originally female, the male being kember. C.p. kemp.


Wool comber


Vainglory; the empty desire of praise or repute. Greek kenos, empty + doxa, glory, opinion; dokein, to seem. Found only in 17th and 18th century dictionaries.


The act of beheading. Greek kephale, head + tomos; temnein, to cut, as in atom, uncuttable, indivisible portion, appendectomy, and many more. The more usual form in English is cephalo-; but either form of this word is in deliberate quest of pedantic humor, as when THE SATURDAY REVIEW of 15 February, 1890, referred to the violent kephalotomic method for the abatement of party spirit proposed by Swift.


An early 19th century French military cap, with a flat top sloping toward the front, and a horizontal peak. Now used historically. In OF WHALES AND MEN, R. B. Robertson (1954) remembers: A century ago, in the days of corsets and kepis and before steel and plastics pushed our flesh and the flesh of our women in ways God never intended it to go, whalebone was the most valuable part of the baleen whale.


Accent on the nos (short o) . Greek keraunos, thunder and lightning; the thunderbolt. (Thunder alone was bronte, as with Charlotte.) Hence Greek keraunoscopia, the observation of thunder and lightning; divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future --therefrom.


A chapped chilblain, especially on the heel. Hence, to tread upon one's kibe, to annoy. Shakespeare in HAMLET (1602) says: The toe of the pesant comes so neere the heeles of our courtier, hee galls his kibe. And the CONTEMPORARY REVIEW of June 1883 said of suicide: How closely this spectre follows on the kibes of pleasure and extravagance.


(1) A fancy dish; not a substantial English recipe, but one of those 'somethings' the frivolous French concoct. From French quelque chose, something; hence kick-choses, kickshaws; this was later treated as a plural, whence 17th century kickshaw. Shakespeare in HENRY IV, PART TWO (1597) calls for a joint of mutton, and any pretty little tiny kickshawes. (2) By extension, anything elegant but trifling or unsubstantial; in Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT (1601) we hear Sir Andrew Aguecheek: I delight in masks and revels sometimes altogether, and Sir Toby Belch: Art thou good at these kickshawses, knight? Milton, in his essay on EDUCATION (1644) applies the word to persons: The Monsieurs of Paris to take our hopeful youth . . . and send them over back again transformed into mimicks, apes, and kickshoes. As early as 1658 we find protest against the kickshaw language, which these chameleon times love to feede on -- a pattern of speech and writing never since wholly set aside.


A whim or erratic fancy. Also kickie-wickie; kicksey-winsey, kicksy wincy, kickshiwinches; probably humorous variants of kickshaw, q.v. Shakespeare uses the first two forms (according to the edition) in ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (1601) , as a jocular term for a wife: He weares his honor in a boxe unseene That hugs his kicky-wicky heare at home, Spending his manly marrow in her arms, Which should sustain the bound and high curvet Of Mars's fiery steed.


A cask, half a barrel ia size. Also kempkin, kinkin, via Dutch, perhaps from Latin quintale, fifth. By a statute of 1531, the beer kilderkin contained 18 gallons; that for ale, 16. There was also a kilderkin of butter, 112 pounds. The word was used figuratively, as by Peele in EDWARD I (1593) : Pluck out thy spigot, and draw us a fresh pot from the kinderkin of thy knowledge. And the cask grew smaller; thus Dryden says in MACFLECKNOE (1682); A tun of man in thy large bulk is writ, But sure thou'rt but a kilderkin of wit.


A swashbuckler, braggadocio; person (that thinks he is) of importance. From kill + cow, the cow being the most unwarlike of creatures. Richard Harvey in PLAINE PERCEVALL THE PEACE-MAKER OF ENGLAND (1590) exclaimed: What neede all this stir? this banding of kilcowes to fight with a shadow? Nashe in return (cp. bum; gallimaufry) calls Gabriel Harvey the kilcow champion.


An insatiable brat, presumed to be a changeling substituted for the genuine child. Near unto Halberstad, we read in Henry Bell's translation (1652) of Luther's COLLOQUIA MENSALIA, was a man that also had a killcrop, who sucked the mother and five other women dry, and besides devoured very much.


A small wicker-basket. Perhaps a diminutive of kipe, basket; kipe has been common since the year 1000, though now only in dialects. Also kibsey, kybzey. Gervase Markham, in COUNTRY CONTENTMENTS (1615) advises: With a gathering hook, gather those which be full ripey and put them into your cherry-pot, or kybzey, hanging by your side or upon any bough you please.

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