Old Words - Old Meanings
last update: 3 July 2020
"The facility of speech, which makes so confiderable a difference between a man and a brute, is of excellent use, as it renders mankind conversable one with another, and as the various natural endowments, observations, experiences, and attainments of every individual man, are hereby, with a wonderful facility, mutually communicated"
By the 17th C the English language was made up of words taken, and often modified, from Arabic, Dutch, Welsh, Danish, French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Chaldee, Saxon, Scotch, Spanish, German, both old and new. Many word and phrases originated from one region of the British Isles, or from one specialist domain, e.g. physics and chemistry, law, hunting, religion and the Bible, poetry, or military terms, etc.
So 'Old Words - Old Meanings' is more about old words that have changed their meaning over the centuries, and, why not, could reappear as new words today.
I have a separate webpage devoted to old Jargon, Slang, and Cant.
The core text I've used is the 21st edition of the "Universal Etymological English Dictionary" of N. Bailey, published in London in 1675. All other additions are indicated or evident in the link.
Three bonus questions on terms from a website:
The Anglish Moot is a website that proposes words coined from Germanic roots to replace those of Romance or Greek origin. For example, ‘all-ken-book’ is ‘encyclopaedia’ and ‘learnhall’ is ‘university’:
(a) The Anglish term ‘mootsmanship’ represents what social science subject on the ‘learnplot’, or curriculum, at many universities?
(b) Possibly after the ‘mark one’ of 1948, ‘manchestercraft’, along with ‘reckonercraft’, is an Anglish version of what subject?
(c) If ‘yorelore’ is history, what is ‘wealthlore’?
Abacista - someone who calculates using an abacus, also "an Arithmetician"
Abaisance - "a Respect paid to a Person by a Congee, low bowing of the Body" (now: obeisance from the Old French obeïssance)
A congee was a bow or curtsey as a show of respect, particularly as a formal or even ceremonial leave-taking. I've read that "to give congee" was a formal permission, or license, to do something, and was also a way to give formal permission to leave, as to dismiss someone. I've also read that it was a passport (as in 'to permit' or authorise in writing) for some particular action.
In early European courtly circles, men were expected to "bow and scrape", where 'scraping' refers to the drawing back of the right leg as one bows, such that the right foot scraped the floor or earth. The man's left hand would be pressed horizontally across the abdomen (possible holding his hat), and the right hand would be held out from the body. Later the expression came to mean to be servile or excessively polite.
Abannation or Abannition - "Banishment for a Year"
Banishment has existed since the Hammurabi Code in Babylon (ca. 1754 BC), and forced exile existed in Greece and Rome. Unguided banishment existed in England in the 12th Century. People would take sanctuary in a church, confess their crimes within forty days, and be allowed to leave England. This practice was outlawed in 1632 (in Amsterdam the practice continued until 1750). Banishment was replaced by sending convicts to prison colonies, although it was often just called 'transportation'. The practice was formalised in the Transportation Act of 1717, and the practice continued until the 1850's. Russian did the same, but they simple transported criminals to Siberia, and Stalin would revive the idea with his own take on the Propiska concept (a kind of state internal passport). In the 1930's in the Soviet Union criminals, homeless persons, prostitutes, political dissidents, and people without an "acceptable occupation" were exiled to the 101st kilometre from major cites. This type of purge also occurred for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Interestingly, the "exclusion zone" exists to protect people against domestic violence and also to stop sex offenders entering certain areas and places. In the US 'exclusion orders' are used to stop the entry of certain goods, and a similar type of 'exclusion order' has been used, and is being used today, to restrict immigration.
Abdominous - "paunch-bellied, unwieldy", potbellied
Potbellied pigs (or domestic pig) are one type of miniature pig, and descent from the old world wild pig. The pot belly inspired the naming of the potbelly stove.
Abecedarian - "one who teaches or learns the A, B, C,… or Alphabet"
Abecedarians were also a 16th Century German sect who rejected all human learning.
The ABC's of something means the most basic or important facts, and for children it often means learning to read and write.
Abisherising - being free from Amerciaments, or financial penalties (from the French a-merce-ment meaning "being at the mercy of", synonymous with a fine). It became a term of liberty of freedom, because, wherever this word was used in a grant, the persons to whom the grant was made had the 'amerciaments' of all others, and were themselves free from the control of any within their fee.
Ablocate - "to set or let out to Hire" for money
Abolition - "is an utter Destruction of any Being, so that no Footsteps of it do remain"
This also meant the leave given by the sovereign or judges to a criminal accuser to desist from further prosecution. It was often used nearly synonymously with pardon, remission, grace, etc. But in fact abolition is used when a crime can not be remitted, so the infamy remains unless letters of abolition were obtained before sentence.
Abnormous - misshapen, vast, huge, appears to derive from Classical Latin 'abnormis' meaning belonging to no distinct school or party (ab- + norma)
Aborigines - just means a person, animal, or plant that has been in a region from earliest times, but an early dictionary defined the word as "the Italians, or such other Nations, who pretend to be without Original from any other People"
Above-board - "in open Sight", according to Wikipedia above-board was a gambling expression meaning when a player changed their cards they put their hands under the table, and it became "in open sight" meaning without trick, concealment or deception
Abscission - it once mean just "a cutting off", but today abscission can mean plants dropping leaves, fruit, seed, etc., or the intentional shedding of body parts, e.g. to escape a predator.
Abtraction - "a Power peculiar to the Mind of Man, in Contradiction to the Souls of Beasts, by which he can make his Conceptions, arising from particular Things, become general"
Achators - equated with Purveryors as in "achators and purveryors...", appears related to those making purchases of behalf of someone. For example a noble kitchen would have an achator and a clerke to view the bills of any purchase. In one text from 1821 the achator sat and ate with the "Master Cooke, the Usher of the Hall, the Yeomen of the Pantry, Buttry, and Ewry, the grooms of those offices, the groome of the Seller, the yeoman of the Squillerye, the groome of the Hall, and such of the under cooked as are there allowed". And the Achator "should be a man skillfull and of good conscience, for if he want knowledge and judgement to buy at the best hande, and withall have a cheverell conscience, so that he will be sure in the laying out of every shilling to gaine to himselfe a penny at least. Such a man in a great house will thrive himselfe, but his Lord shall lose. But having before to the cheefe Officers and Clarke given a Caveat to looke therto, I say noe more but God made him an honest man. He is dayly to take his directions from the Clarke. What provisions he is to make of all kinds of Achates and Necessaryes".
To Adine - "to dine, to entertain on at Dinner"
Adit - "the Shaft or Entrance into a Mine", and could mean a horizontal entrance, or a vent, or an excavation along a lode, and often meaning the equivalent of a discovery shaft
Advertisement - advice, intelligence, information, and also 'putting in mind', and later became a "notice given in a manner designed to attract public attention"
Adusted - burnt, overheated, dried by fire, and 'adustible' meant burnable
Æstuary - "receiving the Steam of boiled Drugs into the Body through a Hole made in a Seat or Chair", however Wikipedia links it to estuary.
Afflation - "the Act of breathing on any Thing", interestingly there are references to process of geographic deflation and afflation, and where afflation appears to be linked to the redistribution of tiny grain particles in the accumulation of loess strata (and even mention of afflation-loess regions). There is also mention of afflatus or "divine breath; inspiration", and therefore afflation is the "act of breathing upon".
A-frame - a building style, A-frame is a native English word, so derived directly from Anglo-Saxon
Africa - "one Quarter of the Earth"
Aftermath - "the After Grass, or second Mowings of Grass, or Grass or Stubble cut after Corn", a right to take a second crop
Agenfrida - "the true Lord or Owner of any Thing" or "denoted own lord, or he who has the absolute property, and dominion of a thing" and there is also the word Agenhina which in Saxon law was "a guest at an inn, who, having stayed there for three nights, was then accounted on the family"
Aggegate - along with 'aggest' meant simply to "to heap up", and 'aggested' meant "heaped up"
To Agglomerate - "to roll or wind up a Bottom"
To Agglutinate - "to glue together", and today agglutination in biology means the clumping of cells, and in particular when someone is given a blood transfusion of the wrong blood group the antibodies react and the erythrocytes clump up and stick together causing them to 'agglutinate'.
Aggrandise - enlarge, to raise, to make great, and Aggrandisement meant "making great", and also exists as self-aggrandisement
Aggravate - means to make worse or more serious, but once meant simply "to make heavy", to enlarge, there was also an odd use of 'aggravating' to mean a "passenger ejected from plane"
Agild - "free from Penalty, not subject to the customary Fine or Imposition", in Saxon times the fine was called a 'gild'
Agnomen - "a Name added to the Surname of a Person upon account of some particular Action", e.g. Africanus because of exploits or victories in Africa, and 'agnomination' meant and additional name, title or nick-name
Agnominate - "to add to a Name, to nick-name"
Agonist - "a Champion, one that thrives for the Mastery"
Agresta - Wiktionary offers "a Calabrian branch of the 'Ndrangheta', but it once meant the juice or oil from unripe grapes"
Al or Ald - when "put to a Name of a Place signifies Antiquity", e.g. Aldgate (which along with Algate also meant the East gate of London, Al and Ald meant 'old' in Saxon)
Albion - the ancient name of Great Britain, which might be related to its white rocks
Alfet - "in the ancient Anglo-Saxon Law, signified a Calderon or Kettle of boiling Water, in which a Person accused of a Crime thrust his Arm up to the Elbow, and held it there some Time, as a Trial and Argument of his Innocency, so that if he was hurt he was held guilty, and if not acquitted"
Allaborate - to labour vehemently
Allectation - an alluring, enticement
Allophylus - one of another tribe, nation, or kindred, a strainer or alien
Amabyr or Amyabyr - "the old Custom or Price which was to be paid to the Lord of the Manor for the Virginity of a new married Woman"
Ambrosia - "the delicious food and Jellies, which, as the Poets feign, the Heathen Gods eat, also a Medicine prepared to be as pleasing to the Palate as possible"
Amenable - easily to be led or ruled
Amortize - to kill
Amphibiology - an obscure speech that has a double meaning, or an ambiguous way of writing or speaking, so that the meaning may be taken into different and contrary senses ("the English Tongue is not so liable to this Abuse as the French, nor the French so much as the Latin")
Anacephalæosis - summing up "the Heads of Things", a brief summary, and of course to repeat the "Heads of a Matter" was to anacephalize
Anachronism - todays means something that is inappropriate to a said period, so something often considered conspicuously old-fashioned, but it once meant an error in chronology or in the computation of time, so a fact or event placed earlier or later that it really was
To Anatomize - "to dissect or cut up the Body of Man or Beast, in order to view its Parts"
To Angle - we all know anglers who go angling, but 'angle' was Saxon for hook, and they once just said 'to angle' was to fish with a hook
Anni Nubilis - "the Age in which a Maid becomes fit for Marriage, which is at 12 Years"
Anthroposophy - has a 20th C definition, but once simply meant the "knowledge of the Nature of Man"
Antanagoge - had almost the same definition in the past, but it meant "not being able to answer an Accusation of the Adversary, we return the Charge, by loading him with the same Crimes"
Anticursor - a scout or fore-runner
Antipast - a fore-taste
Antipredicaments - "Things necessary to be known before hand, for the better understanding the Predicaments"
Antimony - once known as "a mineral Substance of a metalline Nature, consisting of a Sort of sulphurous and metallic Substance having all the seeming Characters of a real Metal, except Malleability, so that it is called Semi Metal"
Antipædobaptists - those against baptising children
Antipodes - was once "such Inhabitants of the Earth as live Feet to Feet, or diametrically opposite one to the other. Pope Gregory excommunicated all such as believed the Antipodes"
Antistrumatick - "good against the King's Evil" (see Royal Touch)
Apparatus - "the Fitness of the Instruments to perform certain Things with"
Areotectonicks - "that Part of it which teaches to attack an Enemy safely, and fight advantageously"
Argentum - Quicksilver or Mercury
Arles …penny - "Earnest Money given to Servants when they are first hired", was an 'earnest payment' which once paid would be a pledge to not strike a bargain with another
Arse-Verse - "a Spell written on a house to prevent it from burning"
Arsy-Versy - "Heels over Head", topsy turvy, without order
Art and Part - when someone both contrived and committed a crime
Atmosphere - "is the lower Part of the Region of the Air or Æther, with which our Earth is encompassed all round, and up into which the Vapours are carried, either by Reflection from the Sun's Heat, or by being forced up by the subterraneous Fire"
Atom - "is such a small Particle of Matter that cannot be physically cut or divided into any lesser Parts"
Averruncation - "a lopping off the superfluous Branches of Trees"
Avowtry - Adultery
Augmentum - "a Computation from what Time the Heat of a continual Fever has seized upon the whole Mass of Blood, till it hath arrived at the Height"
An Autangelist - "a Messenger, one who is his own Messenger"
Authentical - "that is of just or good Authority", or also original, and you also have Authenticalness meaning genuineness
Autochthones - "Home-born, the original Inhabitants of any Country"
Autoptically - with one's own eyes
Awhaped - amazed, astonished
Axinomancy - "Divination by Hatchets"
Bachileria - "the Commonalty, as distinguished from Nobility"
Baculometry - "the Art of measuring accessible or inaccessible Distances or Lines, by one or more Staves"
To Bake - "As she has brew'd e'en so let her bake" is what a father would say to a daughter that has married to her misfortune and with out his consent
Balderdash - "any thing mixed with Discretion", or a 'mingle-mangle'
Bantling - "a small Child"
Barbecue - "a Hog dressed whole"
Barbigerous - "having a Beard"
A Bare - "a Place made smooth to bowl in, a Bowling Alley without Grass"
Bargain - to make a contract, and/or "transferring the Property from Bargainer [seller] to Bargainee [buyer]"
Battology - "a vain foolish Repetition of the same Words over and over again in the same Discourse, a vain babbling"
Beam - "a Sea Monster like a Pike, a dreadful Enemy to Mankind, seizing like a Blood-hound , and never letting go, if he gets past hold. The Teeth of this Fish are so venomous, that unless and Antidote be presently applied, the least Touch of them is mortal"
Biovac/Bihovac - "a Night-guard performed by the whole Army when there is any Apprehension of Danger", and "to raise the Biovac" was to return the Army to their Tents
Blandiloquence - "fair and flattering Speech"
Blesiloquent - "stammering in Speech"
Bombycinous - made of Silk
Bombilation - humming of Bees
Bona-roba - a whore
Bongrace - "a Shelter which is worn on the Head to keep the Face from tanning"
Breviloquence - "a short Way of speaking"
Cackle - "to cry out as a Hen does when she has laid"
Cacophony - "a bad Tone or Voice, proceeding from an ill Constitution of its Organs"
Carbunculation - "the blasting of new sprouted Buds of Plants and Trees, either by excessive Heat, or excessive Cold"
Carcanet - "a Chain for the Neck"
Carcasses - "Iron-Cases about the Bigness of Bombs, filled with Granadoes, charged with Barrels of Pistolets wrapt in Tow dipped in Oil, and the other Materials for firing Houses, are shot out of Mortar-pieces into besieged Places"
Carcellage - "Prison-Fees"
To Cark - to be anxiously careful
Carking - districting, perplexing
Carnalist - "one given to Fleshliness" or "fleshly Lusts"
To Carouse - to quaff, "to drink Hand to Fist"
To Carp - to blame, to censure, to find fault with
Cartesian - "belonging to Cartesius, or one who follows the Opinions of Cartesius or Des Cartes"
Castrametation -"the Art of encamping an Army"
Catacousticks - "a Science treating the reflected Sounds, or which explains the Nature and Properties of Echoes"
Catagraph - "the first Draught of a Picture"
Catastasis - "is the third Part of a Comedy, and is the full Height and Vigour of the Plot"
Catastrophe - "the last Part of a Comedy, and the unravelling of the Plot" or "the fatal Conclusion of any Action, or of a Man's Life"
Catoptricks - "Part of the Science of Opticks, which teaches how Objects may be seen by Reflection, and explain the Reason of it"
Causidicks - "Lawyers, or Pleaders of Causes"
Chum - "a Chamber-fellow to a Student at the University"
Chump - "a thick short Block or Log"
Chemistry - "is the Anatomy of natural Bodies by Fire, or reducing them to their component Parts or Elements, by the Help of Fire"
Chymus - "any Kind of Juice, that especially of Meat after the second Digestion, this mixing itself with the Blood, runs through the Veins, repairing the Waste of every Part"
Ciderist - "one who has the Management of, or deals in Cider"
Circumaggeration - "a heaping round about"
Circumlocution - "an uttering in many Words that which might be said in few"
Circumplication - "a folding, winding, or rolling"
Circumresistency - "a round Resisting, or Resistance about"
Civilian - "a Doctor, Professor, or Student in the Civil Law"
Collabefaction - "a destroying, wasting, or decaying"
Collapsion - "a falling together"
Collation - "a handsome Treat or Entertainment"
Collectaneous - "gathering out of several Things or Places"
Collectitious - "gathering up and down"
Comediographer - "a Writer of Comedies"
Commentitious - forged, counterfeit, imaginary
Commonalty - the common people
Commoner - "a Member of a College in an University"
Compendious - brief, short, very concise
To Comperendinate - "to delay or prolong from Day to Day"
Compilation - "a robbing or plundering, also a heaping up"
Complacency - "a taking Delight in a Thing, a being pleased with, and obliging, agreeable Temper"
Complacent - "of an obliging Humour, civil, courteous"
Compotation - a drinking together
Conquassation - "a shaking, as in an Earthquake, a dashing or breaking to Pieces, also a beating of Things with a Pestle in a Mortar"
Costumelious - "reproachful, affrontive, abusive, sarcastick"
Cosh - "a Cottage or Hut"
Coshering - "a Prerogative which, some Lords of Manors anciently had, to lie and feast themselves and their Retinue at their Tenant's House"
To Cosmographate - "to describe the World"
Coupergorge - a cut-throut
Crazy - "distempered, sickly, weak"
To Cringe - "to make low Bows or Congees, to shew great Submission"
Crinosity - hairiness
Crony - "a good old friend"
Curmudgeon - "a covetous Hunks, a pitiful, niggardly, close-fisted Fellow"
Dandeprat - "to play the Fool"
Dapatical - sumptuous
Dastard - "a Coward or faint-hearted Fellow"
Dealbation - "the whitening any Thing"
To Decacuminate - "to take off the Top of any Thing"
Dedentition - "the Loss or shedding of the Teeth"
Depauperation - "a making poor"
Depelupe - transparent
Dedascalick - "pertaining to a Master to Teacher"
Digital - "pertaining to the Finger"
The language of the time appeared to add the Latin prefix dis- to almost anything to negative or reverse the sense. We have retained many of those words such as disability, disbelief, dislike, dismantle, disobey, etc. But many words have disappeared, e.g. disanchor (to weigh anchor), disbranch and disbud in gardening, discommend (to dispraise), disgarnish, disglorify (deprive of glory), disincarcerate, disorbed (thrown out of orbit), disvalue (undervalue or even disgrace), etc.
Dissentaneous Things - "are such Things which are equally manifest among themselves, yet appear more clearly, when taken separately"
Dodecatemory - "the twelve Signs of the Zodiack"
Dousabel - "a proper Name of Woman"
Dulocracy - "government where Servants and Slaves have so much Licence and Privilege, that they domineer"
Dungeonable Body - "a shrewd Person, also a devilish Fellow"
A Dupe - "a Cully, a Fool, or Ninny"
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