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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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(1) A wizard. Hebrew obh, a necromancer. (2) Short for obolus, a Roman coin; used in English of a halfpenny. Thus in Shakespeare's HENRY IV, PART ONE (1596) Pointz reads a list: Item, sack, two gallons . . . 5 s. 8d.; Item, anchovies and sack after supper ...2s. 6d.; Item, bread . . . ob. and Prince Hal cries: O monstrous! but one half-pennyworth of bread to this intolerable deal of sack! (3) In the phrase ob and sol, abbreviated in old books of divinity: objection and solution; therefore, subtle disputation. Burton in THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY (1621) Speaks of a thousand idle questions, nice distinctions, subtleties, obs and sols. An ob-and-soller is a subtle disputant, as in Butler's HUDIBRAS (1678): To pass for deep and learned scholars Although but paltry ob-and- sollers. (4) ob. Abbreviation of obiit, died; used in lists to indicate the date of a person's death. (5) ob-. The Latin preposition, used in many words as a prefix; also in many English (17th and 18th century, some earlier) words, as an intensive, or with the meaning, in the opposite direction. Thus (Chaucer) obombrid, clouded over. Among words thus formed in English are obacerate, to stop one's mouth, 'shut one up'; obambulate, to walk about; obcaecation, blindness (mental or moral) ; obdulcorate, to sweeten thoroughly; obnubilate, to hide or cover as with a cloud, used also of mental obfuscation; obreptitious, containing a falsehood for the sake of obtaining something, obreption, seeking something by deceit, from ob + repere, to creep. The converse of this is subreption, seeking something by suppressing the truth. [Obscene is from ob + scaena, stage, scene: not to be put on the stage, indecent.] Also obserate, to lock up; obstipate, to block or stop up, to stuff, to produce constipation (mental, moral, or physical) ; obstreperate, to make a loud noise -- Sterne in TRISTRAM SHANDY (1765) has: Thump -- thump -- obstreperated the abbess . . . with the end of her goldheaded cane against the bottom of the calash. Other forms of this word survive, e.g., obstreperous. Obstupefaction is an emphatic form of stupefaction. Obtemper, obtemperate (since the 15th century), to obey, comply. Obumber, to overshadow, obscure (Chaucer's obombrid) ; but obumbilate is probably a scribe's error for obnubilate; obumbrate, to overshadow; obvelate, to veil over, to conceal, also obvele. Obvolve, to wrap around, muffle up, disguise. (6) In the German phrase als ob, as if: the philosophic and aesthetic doctrine of Hans Vaihinger, formulated in 1878, the idea that things should be accepted 'as if' they were so.


A light-house; light-bearer. Greek obeliskos, a small spit (whence also obelisk) + lychnion, lamp-stand. Accent on the penult, like. Motteux in his translation (1694) of Rabelais says: We were conducted . . . by those obeliscolychnys, military guards of the port, with high-crown'd hats.


The act or fact of doing away with, or of so being done. Replaced by obliteration. G. Hickes in TWO TREATISES ON THE CHRISTIAN PRIESTHOOD (1711) spoke of a perfect obliterature of all injuries.


To announce that the omens are unfavorable (as might a Roman magistrate, thus preventing or voiding some public action) . Obnunciation, the announcing of bad news or ill omens; hence, the dissolving of the (Roman) assembly. To obnundate is defined, in 17th century dictionaries, to tell ill news.


To put under obligation. Latin ob, upon, over + stringere, strictum (whence also strict, constrict, etc.), to bind. Hence obstrictive, obstriction. Milton in SAMSON AGONISTES (1671) tells that God hath full right to exempt Whomso it pleases Him by choice From national obstriction. The translation (1660) of Amyraldus' TREATISE CONCERNING RELIGION shows the background of a later Soviet practice: It was never lookt upon as unjust or strange, for those who are obstringed one to another by those bonds to partake in the punishment of their relatives.


To deafen; to dull the hearing or the wits. Used in the 17th century.


An imitation silver; hence, a base metal. Also used figuratively, as when Sir Francis Palgrave in 1857 spoke of the dawning spirit of conventional honour gilding the ockamy shield of chivalry. The word is a corruption of alchemy, by which it was sought to convert base metals into silver and gold.


Sloth. Via French from Latin ocium, otium, ease; whence also otiose; otious (17th century), leisurely, idle, at ease. Cp. otiation. In English, otium is occasionally used; Thackeray in PENDENNIS (1849) says: Mr. Morgan was enjoying his otium in a dignified manner, surveying the evening fog, and enjoying a cigar. Scott (THE MONASTERY; 1820) and others have used the Latin phrase otium cum dignitate, dignified ease. The term otiosity usually puts more emphasis on the idleness, the state of being unemployed. This form was earlier ociositie; Caxton in POLYCRONICON (1482) spoke of alle thoos men whiche thurgh the infyrmyte of our mortal nature hath ledde the moost parte of theyr lyf in ocyosyte, rebukingly; but Thackeray in VANITY FAIR referred with but mild satire to a life of dignified otiosity such as became a person of his eminence.


To set eyes on. Latin oculus, eye. In the play EVERY WOMAN IN HER HUMOUR (1609) we hear of Diana bathing herself, being occulated by Acteon. Oculation also meant the same as inoculation, to put in little eyes or buds (like the 'eyes' of a potato).


(1) A euphemistic shortening of God, used in mild imprecations, especially in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Congreve in LOVE FOR LOVE (1695) ejaculates: Odd! I have warm blood about me yet. Also used in many phrases, mainly as a possessive: od's bodikins, od's wounds (odsoons), odzooks (hooks') and many more fantastic. In some cases -- as in Shakespeare's THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (1598): od's me -- the od's may be short for God save. (2) od, a supposed force permeating all nature, especially manifest in magnets, heat, light, and mesmerism. Postulated by Baron Von Reichenbach (1788-1869) and widely discussed if not accepted in the 19th century, before electricity (as in atomic energy) moved the notion into more scientific channels. Hence odic, relating to the force called od; Reichenbach photographed odic lights. The form was used in compounds to indicate specific aspects of the universal force: biod, the pervasive force in animal life; chemod; heliod (of the sun), etc. Elizabeth Barrett Browning in AURORA LEIGH (1856) mentioned That od-force of German Reichenbach Which still from female finger-tips burns blue.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future --using the teeth.


Also Oinomancy. Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- using wine.


A drink, wine mixed with honey. Favored of the ancient Greeks; oinos, wine + meli, honey. Used figuraatively, as by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (WINE OF CYPRESS; 1844) : Those memories . , . Make a better oenomel.


To increase by interest (of money); to lend at interest; to take interest. From the 12th to the 15th century, usually mentioned as an abomination or a crime. Also as a noun, usury. Old English wokor, increase, related to Latin augere, auctum, to grow, increase, whence also augment and auction. Also ocker, okyre, ocur, ockar, okker, and more. Hence okerer, usurer, one that takes interest for lending money. Lyndesay in 1552 links fornicatoris and ockararis; Skene in 1609 recorded: All the gudes and geir perteining to ane ockerer, quhither he deceis testat or untestat, perteins to the King.


Among the meanings at one time acquired by this common old word, from the notion of long practice and experience it came to mean experienced, skilled, as when Defoe said in COLONEL JACK (1722): The Germans were too old for us there. And from the notion of long continuance old came to mean abundant, plentiful, as in the quotation under Blowen, and when Shakespeare has, in MACBETH (1606) : If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key. This sense also appears in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, and-- News! old news! -- THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. In KING LEAR, in Edgar's song on the heath, old is used for wold, forest, wooded downs; open country.


A dish, originally Spanish and Portuguese, made with pieces of meat and fowl, bacon, pumpkin, cabbage, turnips and what more you will, stewed or boiled and highly spiced. Spanish olla, Portuguese olha (both pronounced olya) , Latin olla, pot. By extension, any dish of many ingredients; see hodgepot. Thence applied to any heterogeneous mixture; Disraeli in TANCRED (1847) spoke of an olio of all ages and all countries. Especially, a mixture or collection of various artistic or literary pieces; a musical medley. The Duchess of Newcastle in 1655 wrote a book entitled: The Worlds Olio: Nature's Pictures drawn by Fancie's Pencil to the Life. THE SATURDAY REVIEW of 7 June, 1884, explained a new form: The second part of a minstrel show is the 'olio' -- and this is only a variety entertainment, of banjo-playing, clogdancing, and the like.


(1) A token of peace or good-will, a peace offering. This meaning is drawn from the BIBLE: GENESIS 8, when the dove returns to Noah on his ark, bearing an olive-branch, a sign that the Lord's wrath was slaked. (2) Usually in the plural; olive-branches, children. This is from the BIBLE, PSALM 128 (Coverdale's version, 1535: Thy children like the olyve braunches rounde aboute thy table). Jane Austen in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1796) reported: The rest of his letter is only about . . . his expectation of a young olive-branch.


A Shakespearean form, for omission. Used in AS YOU LIKE IT (1600 : Omittance is no quittance.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future and gaining mystical insight -- by steadily contemplating one's navel. Also, foretelling how many children a woman will have, by the number of knots in the umbilical cord of herfirst-born. Greek omphalos, navel.


Relating to dreams. Greek oneiros, a dream, has been used for a number of English words. Among these, we may note: oneirocrisy, oneirocriticism, oneirocritics, the art of interpreting dreams; hence, an oneirocritic, onirocritic, such as Joseph in the BIBLE; also oneirocrite, a judge or interpreter of dreams, oneiropompist, a sender of dreams; one that makes another dream (Greek pompos, sending). Also oneiroscopy, oneiromancy. Another term (15th century) for divination by dreams was sompnary, cp.

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