The Framers knew more words than we do

Maybe I should say that eighteenth-century Americans knew and used very different words.  Because my current book project plunges me into a seemingly endless supply of George Washington’s correspondence and other records of the time, I bump into lots of surprising words.

Even when the words are new to me, sometimes their meanings are clear enough.  Take “disgustful,” for example.  I didn’t need to tell me that it means “causing disgust; nauseous; offensive,” but I’m glad that the word survives even in that non-authoritative resource.  I like the word:  By saying we are FULL of disgust, it seems more powerful than merely “disgusting,”

The modern reader can readily identify meanings for other unfamiliar terms, a few of which may have been concocted by the long-ago writer who enjoyed the flexible linguistic rules of the day:

  • “stealingly” — secretly: though the word is not on; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) calls it “rare”;
  • “plentier” — even more of something, and a good deal pithier than today’s “more plentiful”; alas, the word appears in neither dictionary; I suspect the writer made it up on the fly;
  • “consolatory” — providing consolation, and recorded in both dictionaries;
  • “inertitude” — from context, the writer meant it to signify the condition of being inert; I LOVE this word for its mock-learned feel, like something President George W. Bush would say (remember “misunderestimated“?), or maybe Will Ferrell.  The word, unsurprisingly, appears in neither the OED nor

Some words meant something in the 1700s that they no longer mean.  Thus, Virginians back then described floods of rivers and creeks as “freshes,” a usage feels very wrong to me.  Something “fresh” should be a good thing, but floods do not fall into that category.  Then again, the eighteenth century used “wonderful” to mean something that caused a person to puzzle over something, as in, “it’s wonderful that birds can fly,” or “it’s wonderful that lowering taxes is supposed to reduce budget deficits.”  They did not use “wonderful” to mean good, or exciting or happy, the way we do.

The most embarrassing word for me was “irruption,” which I first encountered as referring to invading Canada.  (Americans often wanted to invade Canada — it was the default way to strike back at Great Britain, but it generally proved more difficult than expected, especially in the winter.)

I assumed that the writer had simply misspelled “eruption,” an odd word choice for an invasion, but not a crazy one.  But then other writers used “irruption” to describe the Canadian invasion, so I finally looked it up.  Yup, even has it:  “a breaking or bursting in; a violent incursion or invasion.”  Live and learn.

Then come the words that, well, they’re still in dictionaries but they might as well not be for all I’ve ever run into them.  Words like:

  • “Fugacious” — Fleeting, transitory.
  • “Dibble” — “a small, handheld, pointed implement for making holes in soil for planting seedlings, bulbs, etc.”  Well, I’m no gardener.
  • “Flagitious” — “shamefully wicked.”  We could use this one today, as in a “flagitious tweet.”

Since I spend so much time with eighteenth-century words, I can struggle with current slang, especially the shorthand acronyms like “GOAT” and “FOMO.”  It’s a tradeoff, but not one that troubles me much.


  1. Stewart Harris on November 14, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    C’mon, David—you’ve never planted pine trees with a dibble stick? City boy.

  2. Erik Eden on November 27, 2018 at 9:05 am

    Thanks David.

    I’ve been feeling a little fugatious recently…..really suggs…

  3. JOHN GRADY on January 11, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    “freshes” were still relatively common in virginia newspaper usage after the civil war — particularly describing aftermath of heavy rains in 1870 that caught r.e. lee by surprise and gave him pneumonia that eventually proved fatal. those rains led certainly to the disastrous flooding at harper’s ferry that left the c&o canal wrecked for more than a year and Richmond’s low-lying areas along the james [telegraphed reports from lynchburg saved many lives by alerting officials in the capital to evacuate those neighborhoods before the water began cresting].

  4. Phyllis Caputo on February 13, 2019 at 9:35 am

    Maybe “freshes” means that after it rained, the water got refreshed, or freshened up! The rains were the “freshes.” They washed away all the dirt, grime and made water clear again. I am only guessing.

  5. Ulrica Perkins on July 25, 2022 at 5:21 pm

    Fun to read. Ricky

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