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 dictionary.com 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 dictionary.com; 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 dictionary.com.
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 dictionary.com 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.