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.
A spot, blemish. Latin naevus. Dryden in his ELEGY ON LORD HASTINGS (1649) has: So many spots, like naeves, our Venus soil; One Jewell set off with so many a foil. Also used figuratively, as by Aubrey (LIVES; 1697) : He was a tall, handsome, and bold man; but his naeve was that he was damnable proud. Hence naevous, naevose, maculate.
In addition to the old horse -- being driven into oblivion by the "tin Lizzie"' but once used as a term of abuse for a person, as when Shakespeare in ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA (1606 ) cries upon Yon ribaudred nagge of Egypt -- whom leprosy overtake! -- nag has the still current meaning, as a verb, to constantly scold, to keep up a dull gnawing pain. The original sense of this word was to gnaw, to strip off bark or covering; Its past participle was nakt, whence probably naked. See nake. The Water Poet (WORKS; 1630) extended the equine nag to naggon: My verses are made To ride every jade, But they are forbidden Of jades to be ridden, They shall not be snaffled Nor braved nor baffled; Wert thou George with thy naggon That fought'st with the draggon, Or were you great Pompey My verse should bethump ye, If you, like a javel, Against me dare cavil.
Swimming. Also nayaunt; via Old French noiant, present participle of noire from Latin natare, natatum, to swim; cp. natatile. Used from the 16th century, especially in heraldry.
To strip, to lay bare. First used in the14th century, 500 years after the adjective naked. See nag. Also naken, to strip. One sense of naker, q.v., is one that denudes. It occurs in Chaucer and Douglas; Tourneur in THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY (1607) cries Come, be ready; nake your swords!
A kettle-drum. From Persian naqara. Naker meant also (1) one that denudes; cp. nake. (2) nacre. The drum occurs only in the 14th and 15th centuries, as in Chaucer's THE KNIGHT'S TALE (1386): pypes, trompes, nakers, and clariounes -- until revived by Scott in IVANHOE (1819): A flourish of the Norman trumpets . . . mingled with the deep and hollow clang of the nakers.
A state of abnormal deficiency. Greek nanos, stunted. Hence also nanism, the state of being dwarfed. The process of dwarfing trees is nanization. All were used in the 19th century. There is no relation with inanity, from Latin inanis, empty.
An aromatic ointment, of ancient use; also, the plant that yielded It. See spikenard. Wycllf's BIBLE (John, xii; 1382) tells that Marie took a pound of oynement spikenard, or trewe narde, precious. Poets like the word, from Skelton (1526) : Your wordes be more swefcr than ony precyous narde to Browning (PARACELSUS, 1835) : Heap cassia, sandal-buds and stripes Of labdanumy and aloeballs, Smeared with dull nard.
A nostril. Usually in the plural; from the 14th century, but mainly in 17th century verse, as In Jonson's EPIGRAMS (1616) and Butler's HUDIBRAS (1616): There is a Machiavilian plot, Though every nare olfact it not.
A contraction of hath not. nathe, the nave of a wheel. nathlcss, natheless, nevertheless. (From the 9th Into the 19th century.) nathemore, nevermore; never the more. nather, neither.
A laborer working on a canal or other earthwork (18th century); shortened to navvy. When Bob, in THE TICKET-OF-LEAVE MAN (1863) wonders who will deliver his warning of the burglary plot, the drunken navigator nearby says that he will. "You?" "I, Hawkshaw, the detective." See ticket-of-leave.
Accepting no refusal. Sylvester in THE MAIDEN'S BLUSH (1618) said: Like a naylesse wooer, Holding his cloak, shee puls him hard unto her.
(1) Refusal, saying nay. A late use, as in BLACKWOOD'S EDINBURGH MAGAZINE of April 1898: There be no nayword from me. (2) A watchword, a password. Used into the 19th century; apparently first by (twice) in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (1598); see mumbudget. Shakespeare also seems to use the word in the sense of a laughing-stock, a byword, as when Maria in TWELFTH NIGHT (1601) says of Malvolio: If I do not gull him into a nayword, and make him a common recreation, do not think I have wit enough to lie straight in my bed. Some editions print this as an ayword; wherefore THE GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE (1777) says that nayword meaning a byword is probably a crasis [combination] of an ayeword.
One who herded cows
A verse (usually the first verse of the 51ST PSALM, in Latin) the reading of which saved one's neck. By virtue of the Biblical text "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm" any person in holy orders brought before a secular court (later, any one that could read -- being thus potentially a cleric) could plead privilege of clergy. The Bishop's commissary, always present, pronounced Legit (he reads). A branding on the hand might then be inflicted, instead of the common felon's hanging. The 51ST PSALM begins, in English: Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Shipley in his GLOSSARY (1872) mentioned the deputy of the bishop . . . appointed to give malefactors their neckverses, and judge whether they read or not. An old song, reprinted in THE BRITISH APOLLO (1710) satirically ran: If a monk had been taken For stealing of bacon, For burglary, murder, or rape, If he could but rehearse (Well prompt) his neckverse, He never could fail to escape.
(Greek nekros, corpse; Latin nigrem, black). Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- by communicating with the dead. Necromancy is also the general term for illicit divination, black magic; also nygromauncy, negromancy, nigromancy (early form), nycromancy, necromonseys.
Like nectar; fragrant. In TO HIS MISTRESSES (HESPERiDES, 1648) Herrick says: For your breaths too, let them smell Ambrosia-like, or nectarel. Also nectareous, nectarious, nectarous, full of or like nectar; nectarean, nectarian, as Gay in his verses on WINE (1708) : Choicest nectarian juice crown'd largest bowles.
Also Necyomanty. Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- by calling up the devil or other damned spirits.
Fire produced by the vigorous friction of dry wood (as when the Boy Scouts imitate the Indians). In the 15th and 16th centuries (and later) such a fire was held to possess magical properties, especially for the healing of cattle. Thus an extract from the PRESBYTERY BOOK OF STRATHBOGIE (1644) informs us that It was regraited by Mr. Robert Watsone that ther was neidfire raysed within his parochin . . . for the curing of cattell. Also, to take needfire, to start to burn spontaneously; Stewart in his translation (1535) of THE BUIK OF THE CHRONICLIS OF SCOTLAND wrote: That tyme his stalf, in presens of thame all, it tuik neidfire richt thair into his hand. Scott, in THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL (1805) , used the word to mean bonfire or beacon -- The ready page with hurried hand Awaked the needfire's slumbering brand -- and to some extent that use has persisted.
The nave of a church. French nef; Latin navem, ship. Also, an incense-holder shaped like a boat; also called (15th and 16th centuries) navet, navette; and (19th century) navicula (Latin, diminutive of navem, ship) . Also, nef, a silver or gold vessel in which napkins, saltcellar, etc., for the lord's table were kept; every officer of the household, said Maria Edgeworth In HELEN (1834), making reverential obeisance as they passed to the nef.
Abominable, unmentionable. Latin ne, not + fandum, what ought to be spoken, gerundive of for, fan, fatum, to speak. Nefandous was used from the 17th into the 19th century (Southey) ; in the 15th and 16th centuries a shorter form was used, nefand. The printer Caxton in 1490 cried out against a grete, horribyle, nephande, and detestable cryme. Note that ineffable (cp. effable) has developed the opposite connotation, of something good beyond the power of words to express, as ineffable happiness. Unspeakable usually has unpleasant connotations; unutterable may swing with the emotions, either way.