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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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Milking of cows. Coleridge (BIOGRAPHIA LITERARIA, 1817) looked for a good servant, scientific in vaccimulgence. Latin vacca, cow; whence also vaccarage, vaccary (from the 15th century), a pasturage for cows; a dairy farm. For vaccicide, cp. stillicide. Vaccine, of course, was first associated with the cow: variolae vaccinae, cow pox, drawn from the hands of a milkmaid by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796.


Emptiness. A form in 18th century dictionaries; a variant for vacuity. Vacuation was also used (16th and 17th centuries) in this sense; but also as short for evacuation. Also vacive, vacuous. Vacuefy meant to create a vacuum, to make empty.


(1) A variant of ford (wade?) , a shallow place in a river. (2) An early form of fade, quite frequent from 1500 to 1650. Shakespeare, in RICHARD II (1593) declares: One flourishing branch of his most royall roote . . . Is hackt downe, and his summer leafes all vaded. Latin vadere, to go, whence also invade, evade, and also (3) vade, to go away, depart. Braithwait in BARNABEES JOURNAL (1638) warns: Beauty feedeth, beauty fadeth; Beauty lost, her lover vadeth. Hence also, vading, transitory, fleeting, passing away. Vadosity, the state of being fordable (17th century).


Literally (Latin) go with me: a companion; a handbook; a guide, See Vadosity. Often Vade Mecum was used as or in a book's title. The Odéon Theatre in 1797 planned a literary journal, said the MONTHLY MAGAZINE, to be a valuable vade-mecum for such persons as are not in the habit of deciding on the merits of theatrical performances. Each member of the audience was thus supplied with a pocket critic.


The condition of being vadable, vadeable, fordable. Latin vadosum; vadum, a ford. A vade, q.v., was (16th century) a shallow stretch of a river, across which one might wade. Old English wadan, wade, like Latin vadere, first meant to go, to walk, then to walk through water. From the Latin came vademecum (literally, go with me) used from the 17th century for a guide or handy reference book. Fielding in THE GRUB STREET OPERA (1731) recommended the husband's vade-mecum . . . very necessary for all married men to have in their houses. And Byron in DON JUAN (1818) called Aristotle's rules The vade mecum of the true sublime Which makes so many poets, and some fools.


Craftiness. Listed in Bailey (1751), but not in O.E.D. -- which does list vafrous, sly, crafty. Latin vafrum, cunning, crafty. Hall in his CHRONICLES (1548, HENRY VII) speaks of the Englishmen, accordyng to their olde vaffrous varletie.


(1) To lower, in sign of submission or respect (one's eyes; a banner, a lance), or to take off (a hat, or other headdress). Also vayle, vaill, veil. Hence, to acknowledge surrender or defeat; to yield. Thus Kyd in his translation (1594) of CORNELIA has: valing your christall eyes to your faire bosoms. Coryat in his CRUDITIES (1611) gives instance of figurative use: She will very near benumme and captivate thy senses, and make reason vale bonnet to affection. (2) To have power, to prevail; to be of use. Via Old French from Latin valoir, to be of value. Cp. vailable.


A fur, very popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, used for trimming or lining garments, also for slippers. It was then the fur of a squirrel with gray back and white belly. Old French vair; Latin varius, parti-colored. The fur was later replaced by miniver and ermine; the word vair (though retained in heraldry, and revived in the 19th century by Scott, Swinburne, and more) dropped from the common speech. The same lapse occurred in French; hence, in the Cinderella story, the fairy slippers of Cinderella, made of vair, made sense to the people listening as verre, and became, in English translation, not fur but glass slippers.


Short for avalanche. The a was dropped in French, when folk usage turned I'avalanche into la valanche; cp. napron. Smollett in his TRAVELS IN FRANCE AND ITALY (1766) observed: Scarce a year passes in which some mules and their drivers do not perish by the valanches.


Here is a word that, especially in surviving forms, shifted until it came to mean its own opposite. Its first use in English was as meaning good health; from Latin valetudo, valetudinem; valere, to be well. Rolland in THE COURT OF VENUS (1560) declared: There was worship with welth and valitude. Then it came to mean, in general, the state of health; Cockeram in 1623 defines it: valetude, health or sicknesse. Then it moved on, to mean ill health; Tomlinson in his translation (1657) of Renodaeus' MEDICINAL DISPENSATORY reported the valitude of many, and the death of more. Hence valetudinous, valetudinarious, valetudinary, invalid, weakly; valetudinarian (still current); a valetudinary (17th century) was an infirmary, a hospital. Sheridan, in THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, 1777, observes that there are valetudinarians in reputation as well as constitution.


Flogging. Latin vapulare, to be flogged, to receive a lashing -- also, a tongue-lashing. Hence vapulate, to beat; to be flogged; there are blunders, said Samuel Parr in a letter of 1783, for which a boy ought to vapulate. Also vapulary, vapulatory, relating to flogging. E. Ward in THE LONDON SPY (1706) said: Like an offender at a whipping-post . . . the more importunate he seems for their favorable usage, the severer vapulation they are to exercise upon him. In the school and the Navy, as well as the vocabulary, vapulation has grown obsolete.


A 17th century variant of vase. Evelyn in a CHARACTER of 1651, stated: One of their spurs engaged in a carpet . . . drew all to the ground, break the glass and the vasas in pieces.


Emptiness, desolateness; later (1 7th century) vastness, immensity. Hence vastitude, laying waste; later, immensity. Also vastation, very common from 1600 to 1660, then supplanted by devastation. To vast (15th century) , to lay waste, to destroy; vastator, destroyer. In all these forms waste, to lay waste, was the earlier meaning. Latin vastus, empty, void; hence the void of space, the vast reaches, therefore immense. Frequently vast was used as a noun, meaning space; Shakespeare in THE TEMPEST (1610) and in PERICLES: Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges; Milton, Blake, Keats, Tennyson. Shakespeare also uses vastidity (MEASURE FOR MEASURE), immensity. A use of vast that shows the shift in meaning, or rather a combining of immensity and waste, is in Shakespeare's HAMLET: In the dead vast and middle of the night.


A shortened form of advance, in its various senses; frequent in the 16th century. Also vaunce-roof, vance-roof, a garret. Thomas Raymond, in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1658) claimed that the "fayned names of your fellow Cavaliers" he was accused of having (at his trial for treason) were only the names of such symples as I had caused to be gathered and hung up adrying in the vance-roof at my house. The term was used figuratively by Gurnall in THE CHRISTIAN IN COMPLEAT ARMOUR; OR, A TREATISE OF THE SAINTS WAR AGAINST THE DEVIL (1655): Canst thou hide any one sin in the vance-roof of thy heart?


Full of folly; senseless; mad. Latin vecordia, madness; ve, not, without + corda, a harp-string (hence, harmony); influenced by cor, cordem, heart. Not in O.E.D., which lists vecordy, vecord, madness. The 1788 translation of Swedenborg's WISDOM OF THE ANGELS said: Hence too the terms concord, discord, vecord (malicious madness}, and other similar expressions. Caxton in the PROHEMYE to his POLYCRONICON (1482) stated: Historyes moeve and withdrawe emperours and kynges fro vycious tyrannye, fro vecordyous sleuthe [sloth], unto tryumphe and vyctorye in puyssaunt bataylles.


Rapid. Used in the 17th and 18th century; the noun velocity has survived, as also the velodrome, a speedpalace. Latin velox, velocis, swift. The velocipede lingers in memory, but the velociman, a speedy traveling-machine worked by the hands, scarcely survived the 19th century. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known in literature as Lewis Carroll) reported (in his LIFE by Collingwood; 1882): Went out with Charsley, and did four miles on one of his velocimans, very pleasantly. In 1819 there was advertised a velocimanipede, worked by hands and feet. The extremities, at least, were velocious. C. Nesse in A COMPLEAT AND COMPENDIOUS CHURCH HISTORY (1680) said: Satan was seen to fall like lightning from heaven, to wit, viewably, violently, and velociously.


The Roman goddess of love, especially sensual love; Greek Aphrodite. Hence, desire for sexual delights; see venery. Also beauty, charm; a beautiful woman; a quality that excites desire, a charm or grace; Middleton in YOUR FIVE GALLANTS (1608) pictures a pretie, fat eyde wench, with a venus in her cheeke. The second planet from the sun, between Mercury and Earth, Cp. Diana. The girdle (zone] of Venus made its possessor irresistible.


To strike so as to make sound; to strike so as to cause pain, to flagellate. Latin verberare, verberatum, to beat; verber, a lash, scourge; a whipping. Hence also, reverberate, which is current. Shirley in LOVE TRICKS (1625) cries out: You shall be verberated and reverberated, my exact piece of stolidity! T. H. Croker, in his translation (1755) of ORLANDO FURIOSO uses it for Italian tremolar, to vibrate: A fragrant breeze . . . Made the air trem'lous verberate around. Her mother, said the PALL MALL GAZETTE of 1 August, 1866, was a strict disciplinarian of the verberative school.


See stillicide. Holmes in THE AUTOCRAT AT THE BREAKFAST TABLE (1858) applied the term verbicide to punning, of which he was often guilty.


To keep on talking. Latin verbi-, word + gerere, to act, carry on. Hence, verbigeration. Listed in 17th and 18th century dictionaries. The words are now used for a psychopathological repetition of a word or phrase.

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