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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 lostell

Disperse! A command for a crowd to go to their homes, or soldiers to their quarters; used also by heralds to the finished fighters at a tournament. From Old French a I'ostel (whence English hostel), to your quarters. The Kyng, said Hall's CHRONICLES (1548) caused the heraldes to cry a lostell, and every man to departe. Old ostel, hostel, became hotel, and gave Sarah Bernhardt her one pun. When she became famous, the public wished to know whether she was married to the man she was living with. No one dared ask, but one reporter ventured to inquire: "Where were you married, Madame Bernhardt?" Knowing his intent, the actress mischievously replied: Naturellement, a l'autel! (Naturally, at the altar -- altar, in French, having the same sound as hotel). Cp. hostelity.


One who steals cattle in herds. From Latin ab, away + agere, to drive. Hence, abaction, cattle-stealing. Hammond in his commentary ON PSALMS (1659) speaks of abactors, whose breaking in . . . is attended with the cattles passing through or going out. Lamb, in a letter of 1829, refers to an abactor's wife. There is no English verb to abact, but N. Bailey's ETYMOLOGICAL DICTIONARY of 1751 includes abacted, drawn away by stealth or violence.


To estrange; to make mad. From Latin ab-, away + alienare, to estrange, to give to another; alienus, belonging to another. John Gaule in PYSMANTIA THE MAG-ASTRO-MANCER (1651) says: Extasies of prophets did not so abalienate their minds as that they apprehended not what they did. S. Clark in his LIVES (1683) states: Neither difference of opinion, nor distance of place, nor seldomness of converse, nor any worldly respect, did cause the least abalienation. Note that one meaning of alienation (from 1450 on) is also loss of mental faculties; Lord Brougham on THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION (1862) speaks of a state of mental alienation.


A state of always desiring more. In the 1731 edition of his ETYMOLOGICAL DICTONARY, N. Bailey traces this to a medieval Latin word abartia, insatiableness. The word, in both languages, seems to be the lexicographer's invention.


To report or disclose a secret crime. The word seems another invention of the fertile N. Bailey in his ETYMOLOGICAL DICTIONARY (1751).


A lazy monk; a fat sluggard, a porridge-belly. A term used in scorn by the anti-Catholics of the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus Cotgrave in 1611 defined archimarmitonerastique: an abbeylubber, or arch-frequenter of the cloyster beefe-pot. THE BURNYNGE OF PAULES CHURCH (1563) said it was a commen proverbe to call him an abbey-lubber, that was idle, wel fed, a long lewd lither loiterer, that might worke and would not.


A secret place, especially for hiding things. Also abditory. From the Latin abdere, abditum, from ab, away + dare, to put. The word is used of a chest in which religious relics are kept, or money -- but also, by Dr. Robinson in EUDOXA (1658) to say: In the center of the kernel of grain, as the safest abditory, is the source of germination. Hence also abditive, remote, hidden.


An alphabet book; a primer. Used from the 15th to the 18th century; also abscedary, absedary. ABCDary; accent on the see. Also used as an adjective, relating to the alphabet; needing the alphabet, illiterate. Also abecedarie; abecedario (plural abecedarii) , a teacher, or a learner, of the ABC's. Cp. abece; abseybook. Florio in his translation (1603) of Montaigne said: There is a kind of abecedarie ignorance preceding science; another, doctorall, following science.


To ride away. Latin ab, away + equus, horse. In 17th century dictionaries.


A waiting-woman. In the BIBLE (FIRST BOOK OF SAMUEL, XXV. 24-31) Abigail of Carmel throws herself at the feet of King David, calling herself "thine handmaid ... I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid . . . thine handmaid" -- until he marries her. In Beaumont and Fletcher's play THE SCORNFUL LADY (1610) the "waiting gentlewoman" is named Abigail; from the popularity of the play, the name became the common term for a maid-servant. Smollett in HUMPHREY CLINKER (1771) speaks of an antiquated abigail, dressed in her lady's cast clothes. Congreve in THE OLD BACHELOR (1693) indicates another role she often played: Thou art some forsaken abigail we have dallied with heretofore.


As a noun, a servile person; one cast off, an outcast. Latin abicere, to cast off; ab, away + iacere, iactum (in compounds iectum, whence also conjecture and many an object). Shakespeare in RICHARD III (1592) speaks of the Queen's abjects; Shelley in PROMETHEUS UNBOUND (1818): The subject of a tyrant's will Became, worse fate! the abject of his own.


To send abroad; to send far off, as used to be done with a son in disgrace. Latin ab, away + legare, legatum, to send on a message, whence legate. An ablegate is (still) a messenger of the pope, that brings his insignia to a newly appointed cardinal. Hence ablegation, despatch, dismissal. Used in the 17th century.


A foreboding, especially of ill. Also to abode, to presage, to be ominous; an abode was also (17th century) a prediction. Shakespeare has both noun and verb in HENRY VI, PART THREE (1590): The owle shrieked at thy birth, an evill signe, The night-crow cryde, aboding lucklesse time . . . Tush man, aboadments must not now affright us.




Indifference. Accent on the aff. Also adiaphoricy; Greek a, not + diaphoros, differing; dia, apart + pherein, to bear. The form adiaphorism was used especially of religious indifferentism. Hence adiaphorist, adiaphorite, one that is indifferent (as of religious matters, or among the creeds) ; also adiaphoral, adiaphorous, adiaphoristic. An adiaphoron is a matter of indifference; specifically, a practice or belief for which there is no church decision, which is therefore left to the will of the individual. J. Smith (SELECTED DISCOURSES; 1652) said: These we may safely reckon, I think, amongst our adiaphora in morality, as being in themselves neither good nor evil.


From Latin ad, to + vesper, evening: advesperascere, advesperatum, to draw toward evening; this word means to grow toward night. It exists in 17th and 18th century dictionaries.


Divination -- foretelling events, predicting the future -- by appearances in the air.


An unexpected blow after one has ceased to be on guard, a further disaster when it seems life can bring no more, a misfortune that 'caps the climax.' Used from the 15th century. Butler in HUDIBRAS (1663) knows the unrelenting drive: What plaguy mischiefs and mishaps Do dog him still with afterclaps.


A source of inspiration; poetic power. Aganippe was a fountain on Mount Helicon, sacred to the Muses. THE LIFE OF ANTONY A WOOD (1695) said: Such towering ebullitions do not exuberate in my aganippe.


A sea-monster. So-called in early dictionaries, and so felt to be in Tudor times: later identified with the eager, a tidal bore, also eagre, q.v. The bores (unusually high tidal waves) were found especially in the estuaries of the Humber, Trent and Severn. Lyly in GALLATHEA (1592) said of Neptune: He sendeth a monster called the agar, against whose coming the waters roare, the fowles flie away, and the cattel in the field for terrow shunne the bankes. Sprigge in 1647 neatly defined eager, a sudden surprisal of the tide.

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