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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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A coarse garment; especially, a loose outer shirt without sleeves, worn by peasants, foot-soldiers, monks. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the official dress of a herald. Common since the 13th century; hence, The Tabard Inn, in Southwark, where the pilgrims assembled in Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES (1386). The inn stood until 1875; Toone, in his GLOSSARY of 1834, says it is now corruptly called the Talbot. Cp. courtepy; rochet.


Emaciation; wasting away. tabefact, wasted away; corrupted (15th century), tabe, tabes, gradual wasting away; consumption. Root ta, to run, melt, related to English thaw. Also tabetic, relating to emaciation; a tabetic, one afflicted with tabes.


Relating to letters, or a letter-carrier. Latin tabellarius, letter-carrier, courier; tabella, writing-tablet. Hence tabellary, a letter-carrier; a scrivener; also as an adjective, pertaining to such things; (of ancient practice) pertaining to voting tablets. A tabellion was a minor official clerk in the Roman Empire and until the Revolution in France; in England, 17th and 18th centuries.


From his voyages to the South Seas, Captain James Cook brought home numerous new words, including taboo, a Tongan word (tabu "set apart," "forbidden") he introduced into English in 1777.


A drum. Related to Persian tabirah and taburak, both meaning drum; possibly to Arabic tanbur, a kind of lyre. Also tabour, taborn, tabron, tabberone, tawberne, talburn, tawbron, and more. When the word drum was introduced, in the 16th century, tabor was used of a small drum. A taborin was one less wide but longer than the tabor, played with one drumstick, while the other hand manipulated a flute or fife. A tabret (taberett, tabberet, tabarde, tabouret) was also a small tabor, a timbrel (q.v.). Some of the Romance languages have the same word with an m; whence also, English tambour, drum, especially the large bass drum (also, a kind of embroidery or needlework made with the material stretched as on a drum-head). A tamboura was an oriental instrument of the lute family. A tamborin, tambourin, was a long narrow drum, especially of a type used in Provence. The French tambour de basque, on the other hand, is English tambourine, made familiar by the Salvation Army. From its drum-shape the low stool called tabouret drew its name; privilege (honour) of the tabouret, permission for a lady to sit in the Queen's presence. The tabor might also be the drummer, usually the taborer. Shakespeare in THE TEMPEST (1610) tells: Then I beat my tabor, At which like unbackt colts they prickt their eares.


Things that should not be mentioned. Directly from the gerundive of Latin tacere, to be silent, whence also English tacent, silent. The imperative tace (pronounced tay see) is sometimes used as an admonition to silence; since the 17th century (Fielding in AMELIA, 1752; Scott in a letter of 1821), the sentence Tace is Latin for a candle has been used to let a person know he's to keep silent on a matter. BLACKWOOD'S EDINBURGH MAGAZINE of February 1883 referred to topics regarded as tacenda by society.


I. As a noun. (1) A spot, blemish, physical or moral; a stain, stigma; a distinctive mark (good or bad) . Caxton's THE GOLDEN LEGEND (1483): She that never had tatche ne spot of corruption. Related to touch. (2) A clasp, buckle, hook and eye, or other device for fastening. The same word as tack. (3) A flat pan for boiling maple sugar; also for drying tealeaves. (4) Tinder. Also teche, taich, tash, and more. II. As a verb. (1) To stain or taint, especially morally; to stigmatize; to blemish. (2) To fasten, lay hold of (15th to 17th century, arrest) . Replaced in this sense by attach. (3) To attack, to charge. Also teccheless, tacheless, stainless, without fault. In 1723 R. Hay wrote A Vindication of Elizabeth More from the Imputation of being a Concubine; and her Children from the Tache of Bastardy.


Shape; especially, one's shape from shoulder to waist. From the French, used in the 17th century; in the 14th century, tail was used in the same sense. Pepys in his DIARY (13 July, 1663) said that Mrs. Stewart, with her sweet eye, little Roman nose, and excellent taille, is now the greatest beauty I ever saw.


A repayment of like for like. Latin tails, like. Used from the 15th into the 18th century; replaced by retaliation. Also talio, talion. Sometimes the Latin phrase lex talionis, the law of like, is used, for such principles as the Biblical "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"; also, for the infliction on an accuser that does not prove his case of the penalty that would have fallen upon the accused had he been found guilty. Also talionic, relating to such retaliation. Beaumont in PSYCHE (1648) observed: Just Heav'n this taliation did decree, That treason treason's deadly scourge should be.


To tire, become exhausted; swoon. Also taum, tawm. Used from the 14th to the 17th century, later in dialects. Drant in THE WAILYNGS OF THE PROPHET HIEREMIAH (1566) wrote: My babes dyd faynt, And sucklynges tawmed in the streetes.


A 16th and 17th century dainty: a tart or sugared pastry, made with cheese, cream, and eggs; an early variety of cheesecake.


One who tans (cures) animal hides into leather


A thing that only seems to exist Latin tanquam, as if; as it were. In Cambridge University, in the 17th and 18th centuries (tanquam socius, as if a fellow), a tanquam was an associate or companion of a fellow of the University.


One who puts the tap in an ale cask


A pleasant drink: (1) From the 16th century, the fermented sap of various palm trees, especially the date and the coconut. Also tingling terry; and tarea, taree; tadie, taddy; (most popular form in the 18th century) toddey, toddie, toddy. (2) hot toddy (since the 18th century), hot water, sugar, and brandy or rum or gin or whisky. Burns in THE HOLY FAIR (1786) wrote: The lads and lasses, blythely bent To mind baith soul an' body, Sit round the table,, weel content. An' steer about the toddy. The Revenue Office in 1850 ruled that The taree or juice of the palm tree is liable to duty, in its fermented or unfermented state.




An old form of tercel, q.v. The tercel-gentle was the male of the peregrine falcon -- used figuratively of a noble gentleman. In Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET (1595), Romeo has just left the orchard beneath Juliet's window -- He jests at scars that never felt a wound. But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun! -- after their first wooing, when Juliet calls: Hist, Romeo, hist! -- Oh, for a falconer's voice, To lure this tassel-gentle back again!


Another word (for "skin art") introduced by Captain Cook, who in 1769 told how Tahitians painted themselves with "tattows." From Tahitian, Tongan, and Samoan ta-tau or Marquesan ta-tu.

The use of the word meaning "rhythmic drumming" is earlier, from the 1600s, (originally as tap-too) from Dutch taptoe, literally "close the tap (of the cask)."


Torch. See tede. Latin taeda, pine-torch. Spenser in his EPITHALAMION (1595) said of his bride: Bid her awake; for Hymen is awake, And long since ready forth his maske [merry procession] to move, With his bright tead that flames with many a flake [flash], And many a bachelor to wait on him.


One who drives a team for hauling.

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