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 still current yard meaning enclosure is Old Saxon gard (whence also garden) , as in vineyard and orchard; Latin hortus, garden; related to court. There was another yard, probably related to Latin hasta, spear, meaning a stick, a slender shoot of a tree. This survives in sailyard, and the reduplicating yardstick. Other senses this yard had include: a twig; hence, a trifle, a thing of no value. A means of punishment; hence, punishment, the rod. From the use of a rod in measuring land, a yard, an area of a quarter of an acre; a measure of length: (9th to 15th century) 16 1/2 feet; (14th century and now standard) 3 feet. By optimistic transfer, the phallus (as also Latin virga, rod); Shakespeare in LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST (1588) has one of his frequent puns: Armado: I do adore thy sweet Grace's slipper. Boyet (aside to Dumain): Loves her by the foot. Dumain (aside to Boyet): He may not by the yard.
Ready, prepared. Also as an adverb, quickly, nimbly. The adverb was sometimes used as an exclamation, as in Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (1606) and THE TEMPEST, or (full yare) as a rhyming tag -- thus in the ballad of GUY WARWICK (1400): And wyth hys fyst he smote me sore: Sythen he flew awey full yore. The adjective was common from BEOWULF into the 19th century, especially as a sea term, meaning responding readily to the helm, easily manageable; thus Shakespeare (also in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA): Their shippes are yare, yours heavy.
To make ready, prepare. A verbal form of yare, q.v. Also, to put in position. To yark to, shut; yark up, open. By extension, to ordain, appoint; grant, bestow.
A mare, especially an old, worn-out mare. Also yawde, yode, yade; related to jade. Hence, a strumpet -- thus yaudson, yaldson, son of a whore, a 15th and 16th century term of abuse. Also yaudswiver (16th century), one that carnally knows a mare.
See y-. Spenser has, in THE SHEPHERD'S CALENDAR (1579; APRIL), the charming line to "faire Elisa": yclad in scarlet, like a maiden queene.
To care for, take notice of, consider; look attentively (upon); to take care of, guard, protect; to have charge of, govern, manage, control; to observe (a command, a holiday). Also the noun yeme, care. Hence in yeme, in one's care. To nim yeme, take yeme, take note, give heed, etc. Hence yemeless, careless, negligent; yemelest, negligence; yemelich, full of care, anxious; yemer, a keeper, guardian, ruler. The forms were common from the 8th to the 15th century. Dunbar in a poem of 1520 speaks of a guardian dispoilit of the tresur that he yemit. There was also a form yemsel (yhemsale, yemseill), care, custody, used from the 12th to the 15th century.
Originally, a servant of superior rank, in a royal or noble household. Also yeman, ymman, probably related to youngman, the youth of a noble house trained as a page or a yeoman. Hence, to do yeoman service, to do excellent and faithful work (often with implication that the assignment was onerous) . The body-guard of the ruler of England (first archers, appointed when Henry VII was crowned; 1485) consists of The Yeomen of the Guard; these survived in London and the title of a Gilbert and Sullivan play (1888). By extension (15th to 17th century), a landholder under the rank of a gentleman; hence, in general, a sturdy and respected commoner. Skelton in MAGNYFYCENCE (1520) pictured life's vicissitudes: To day hote, to morowe outrageous colde; to day a yoman, to morowe made a page.
The cupping of the hands; also, as much as the cupped hands will hold. Also yaspen, ipson, yespe, espin, and the like. Used from the 14th century, lingering beyond the 16th in dialects. Old English geap, open, spacious, curved; the Old Teuton root is gaup, Old Norse gaupn, hollow of the cupped hands, whence also English gowpen, with the same meaning as yepsen.
(1) To draw stitches tight; to bind tightly. Revived by Scott in THE LAY OF THE LAST MINSTREL (1805) and THE HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN (1818): His hands and feet are yerked as tight as cords can be drawn. Hence, to crack a whip; to strike, to beat; hence, to rouse, to excite. Skelton; Spenser; Shakespeare (OTHELLO, 1604): Nine, or ten times I had thought t'have yerk'd him here under the ribbes. BLACKWOOD'S EDINBURGH MAGAZINE in 1833 declared: We should yerk the yokel of a Yankee with the knout. Hence also, to jerk; to carp (at); to jerk (out) words, strike up a song; to compose rapidly, yerk up a book; to go at something eagerly, pitch into. The word was first used (1450) as a term in bootmaking, of the twitch (jerk) at the end of drawing through the thread; naturally it is used in Dekker's THE SHOEMAKER'S HOLIDAY (1600) . Shakespeare used it (again) in HENRY V (1599) of wounded steeds that with wild rage Yerke out their armed heeles at their dead masters.
Yesterday evening. Corrupted into such forms as the strene, the straine, ystrewine, yhistrewyn, yistrevyn. The ballad FAIR ELLEN (in Child's collection, 1800) has: I dreamed a dream san the straine. Scott revived yestreen, which had never been wholly abandoned by nostalgic poets.
A variant of yeasty, in the sense of frothy, insubstantial; or foamy, like troubled waters. Shakespeare uses it in HAMLET (V ii 199) and in MACBETH 1605): Though the yesty waves Confound and swallow navigation up.
See y-. Note that yferre was also a 17th century pseudo-archaism for afar. For an instance of its use, see depeint.
Ugly. An early opposite to handsome. Not in the O.E.D, Cp. ugsome. Hoby in his translation (1561) of Castiglione's THE COURTIER said that Beawtie is a face pleasant, meerie, comelye, and to be desired for goodnesse, and Foulness a face dark, yglesome, unpleasant, and to be shonned for yll.
See inkhorn. Emong al other lessons, said Wilson in THE ARTE OF RHETORIQUE (1553), this should first be learned, that we never affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but so speak as is commonly received, neither sekyng to be over fine, nor yet livyng over carelesse.
Went. The old past tense of go. Also yead, yede. Cp. sigalder. The word was mistakenly used as a present -- yode, yede, to go, in the 16th century. Scott revived the form, in MARMION (1808): In other pace than forth he yode, Returned Lord Marmion.
Sable, the animal and its fur. Also, a woollen cloth with a somewhat furry surface, used for women's dresses. THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY of May 1889 averred: In 1188 or thereabout no person was allowed to wear garments of vair, gray, zibeline, or scarlet color.
A gem. The word, which Bulwer-Lytton uses twice, is an error; he misunderstood the Old English symbol for dg which looks like a z, thus reading zimm for gimm, gem. Thus in HAROLD (1848): Taking from his own neck a collar of zimmes . . . of great price.
A girl; a maiden. From the Italian; plural, zitelle. Mrs. Behn in THE FEIGN'D CURTIZANS (1679) exclaimed: A curtizan! and a zitella too? a pretty contradiction!
A little zone, a zonelet; especially, a girdle or belt (for a maiden's waist). Herrick says in HESPERIDES (1648), of his JULIA'S RIBAND: 'Tis that zonulet of love Wherein all pleasures of the world are wove.
A euphemistic shortening of By God's wounds, as a mild oath. Also zwounds; zoones, zauns, zownds, zons, dzowns. Shakespeare exclaimed in KING JOHN (1623) -- and the present reader well may echo him: Zounds, I was never so bethumpt with words!