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Jack Smith

Many words lost to the language over the years reveal much of how people lived and loved in Colonial times

August 04, 1985|JACK SMITH

Verbatim, which publishes an entertaining quarterly on language, has published a new book, "Colonial American English," which shows how words reflect a society's times, manners and morals.

This glossary of Colonial expressions, compiled by Richard M. Lederer Jr., tells us much about the way our founding fathers looked, what they ate and drank, how they disported themselves, and what they thought of God and justice.

Many words now lost to the language were the names of card games, of conveyances, of clothing, of spiritous liquors, of sailing ships, of the military, of religion, of sexual relations.

An Adamite , for example, was a member of a religious sect that worshiped in the nude. In 1656 Connecticut banned Adamites, along with Quakers, Ranters and "such like heretiques."

While we still argue over the acceptability of ain't , the Colonials used an't as a contraction of am not . Why not?

Curiously, ax was used for ask , as in "Ax me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."

A lost but good word, it seems to me, is ballarag , which meant "bullying language," as in "Don't ballarag me!"

The state of medicine in the Colonies is suggested by one meaning of the word barber --"one who performed blood letting and minor surgery."

A lost meaning of the word bargain is to make small talk, as in "They gathered to dine and bargain."

A place used for bear baiting was a bear garden , later meaning any place where uncouth conduct prevailed. We have bear gardens today.

Black coat was a graphic, disparaging term for a minister. In 1654 Edward Johnson wrote: "I'll bring you a woman that preaches better gospell than any of your black coats."

Though the practice is ludicrously quaint in this age of sexual revolution, the word bundle is known to most of us. It was a custom by which courting young couples could lie fully clothed in the same bed, for warmth, with a bundling board between them.

A chandler was an artisan who made or dealt in candles. Speaking of Chandlers, a publisher in those days was not necessarily a pillar of the community; he was the town crier.

We are reminded that the word citizen in Colonial times applied only to men. (And in the Declaration of Independence, only men were created equal, and only white men at that, as it turned out.)

A useful word that seems lost was coxcomb , meaning a superficial pretender to knowledge. I have been known to be a coxcomb myself. It is still shown in our dictionaries as "a foolish, conceited person." Perhaps worth reviving.

Croaker is also a word that might have its contemporary uses. It means a predicter of misfortune. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1771, "There are croakers in every country, always boding its ruin."

Diaper , which today means only "a basic garment for infants," was in Colonial times the word for a fine linen fabric, often used for tablecloths, that came "d'Ypres"--from Ypres, Belgium.

One of the problems of the Sabbath, evidently, was that dogs came to church. A dog whipper was a man hired to chase them out.

The condition of blacks is suggested in the word drove , which simply meant a group of Negro slaves.

A fribble was a trifle. Philip Fithian wrote in 1774 of "many womanish fribbles."

Since we have such an abundance of sexual terms we may not miss flourish , but it seems rather picturesque as a word for "an act of hasty sexual intercourse." Lederer suggests that it may have come from "the flourishing of a weapon."

One word that is dead beyond recall is gynecandrical , meaning "men and women together." It was a state that the celebrated black coat Increase Mather deplored: "There are questions regarding gynecandrical dancing or that which is commonly called mixed promiscuously dancing viz men and women together. Now this we affirm to be utterly unlawful and it cannot be tolerated in such a place as New England without great sin."

A verb that has become obsolete, at least in legal practice, was indent , meaning to bind, by contract, one person to work for another. "The Colonial population included many indentured servants who agreed to work, generally for four or five years, in exchange for their passage from Europe. Young people were apprenticed, generally for seven years, to learn a trade or craft. Orphans were bound until they were 21 to learn a trade or craft in exchange for food, shelter, and clothing."

A noun that remains only as a verb is jilt , a woman who trifles with her lover.

A window was called a light , a wonderfully poetic and descriptive term, since in daytime windows light a house, and at night they seem to be its lights. I see that meaning is given as the ninth meaning under light in Webster's New World, but I have not lately seen or heard its use.

A nunnery was a brothel.

Pettifogger meant then what it means now--a lawyer whose methods are petty, underhanded or disreputable; strangely, though pettifoggers are in abundance, the word seems to have gone out of style.

A sociable was a four-wheeled vehicle with seats facing each other, and a box seat for the driver. Sociable, see?

A wench was a young woman, of whatever moral persuasion.

And 200 years from now, no doubt, our own language will seem as quaint.

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