Friday, June 20, 2014

Colonial words

Caleb's Crossing, the Geraldine Brooks novel set in colonial America, makes easier reading than a book actually written in the 17th century might be. Even so, Brooks uses enough words and phrases from the period to give her story the feel of the times. Fortunately, in most cases readers can tell from the context what these unfamiliar terms mean. Here are a few examples:

bawdress ("... they might claim in turn that you acted as her bawdress") An old dictionary defines the word as "a woman bawd" and a bawd is what we would today call a pimp.

bever ("Since I was the underling, it fell to me to rise earliest, draw water, kindle the cook fire, and prepare the morning bever.") Harvard students in the novel were served beer first thing in the morning, so bever would seem to mean what we today would call beverage.

doughtrough ("That I had my hands up to my wrists in a doughtrough made no matter.") Usually broken into two words, a dough trough is a vessel used for working large quantities of dough.

forwhored ("It would be hard to imagine a way that the girl could have been forwhored while she was at Corlett's school without my being party to it.") To debauch or to lead into unchastity. It may also mean rape.

gibbet ("The deepest featherbed may as well be a gibbet for all the comfort I can find upon it.") An instrument of public execution.

poppet ("I sit here, propped up like a poppet, and I watch.") A doll or marionette.

sennight ("I did not speak to him as he passed by my pallet, nor for the next sennight.") A week, or seven nights.

traduce ("And had they flogged a name out of her, do you think such a devil as would forwhore a child would thereafter scruple to traduce her?") To betray or bring false charges against.

ungirt ("... they aspired to what they had themselves known: a gated sanctuary where the boys and their tutors lived together, at a lofty remove from the town, with its miserable distractions and ungirt life.") Loose or relaxed.

This novel perhaps could have benefited from a glossary, but even without one you can usually figure out what is meant.

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