Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lost in Translation...meaning what you say in the 18th century

Doctor Johnson in the Ante-Room of the Lord Chesterfield Waiting for an Audience, 1748
by Edward Matthew Ward, 1845
So, having reached Part II of my work-in-progress, Through the Hourglass, my young heroine time travels back to 1718. As a sixteen-year-old from the year 2014, one of her immediate adjustments is that of language. Even though she is in her hometown of Edenton, North Carolina (known at the time as the Town on Queen Anne's Creek,) and even though the inhabitants are speaking her own native English, she finds the meanings of many words have changed, causing much room for misunderstandings!

In researching the changes in word usage, I came across the dictionary authored by
Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language
Samuel Johnson in 1755. (Another 18th century book with a loooong sub-title:)

IN WHICH The WORDS are deduced from their ORIGINALS, 
BY EXAMPLES from the best WRITERS. 

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can peruse Mr. Johnson's work at: 
(You can see photos of the actual original pages by clicking "Page View.")

Here is a list of examples, one for each letter of the alphabet, to give you some idea of the misunderstandings a time traveler might encounter:

AWFUL—Not rotten but awe-inspiring, as in “awful majesty.”
BAGGAGE—An insulting term for a woman, like “hussy.”
CLOWN—A rustic or bumpkin, not a circus performer.
DESERT—Any deserted or uninhabited place—a wilderness, not necessarily a place filled with sand. 18th century author Daniel Defoe placed his Robinson Crusoe on a desert island filled with lush vegetation.
ENTHUSIASM—Fanaticism, especially in religious matters. Not a positive attribute.
FOND—Foolish, naive, innocent.
GENEVA—Gin. The word and its shortened form come not from the Swiss city, but from genever, Dutch for juniper, the plant which provided the flavor for the original Dutch variety.
INTERVIEW—Any sort of meeting. Not just to see about getting hired for a job.
JADE—Could refer to the green stone we think of today but also as an abusive term applied to women; something like slut.
KID—Young goat. To kid meant to bring forth young goats. (Nothing at all to do with teasing!)
LEECH—Johnson’s first meaning is: physician (and not derogatory at all) and second meaning is: the critter that sucks blood. The norm for medical treatment was bleeding the patient.
MAKE LOVE—Johnson lists 59 entries under "to make___" and this is number 39: To court, to woo (with no sexual connotation.)
NICKNAME—A name given in contempt with great derision.
OUCH—An ornament of gold or jewels, unless referring to the ouch of a boar in which it means a blow from a boar’s tusk, (Ouch!)
PECULIAR—Particular (not odd or unusual.)
SNACK—A share of something often by a compact or agreement.
TOILET—A dressing table (no indoor plumbing, remember?)
UPHOLSTERER—One who furnishes houses (not limited to one who makes or repairs upholstered furniture.)
VINE—The plant that bears the grape (apparently all vines were assumed to be those that produced vino.)
WOMANIZE—To make a man more like a woman, effeminate, emasculate (something done TO a man not BY a man.)
X—“No words in English language begin with this letter” according to Samuel Johnson.
ZONE—Girdle (which meant anything that surrounded one’s middle not just the suck-you-in undergarment of your grandmother’s day. )
Sophia Drake, by Ralph Earl, 1784

As you can see, a young time traveler could get herself into a lot of hot water if she misspoke or misunderstood. Let's hope she doesn't go for an interview as a hothouse worker!

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now! 



John Ahearn said...

And what, pray tell, would the 18th century gang think when told, "y'all come back now" or does that meaning carry backwards and forwards with no change in meaning?

Kathryn Louise Wood said...

Oh, now, some phrases are just timeless I'm sure! But actually it appears, according to linguist Michael Montgomery, "y'all" stems from the old Scots language (which, itself, borrowed from middle-English) that used the term "ye aw" to mean "you all." He even sites a reference from a letter written in 1737 by an Irish immigrant in New York to his family back home in Ireland. 'Cause, you see, The Scots brought the phrase over to Ireland. And then, of course, some of your Irish ancestors brought it over to America! So, there ye go! Thanks for stopping by John!