Lost Words Of Colonial America: A Glossary


LANGUAGE EVOLVES so rapidly that today we can no longer even understand some of the words the American colonists brought with them from Europe or devised to fit their lives in the New World. Here are some startling or amusing examples:


American Legion ( n. )

The provisional corps of Tories raised by Benedict Arnold after his defection in 1780. He was successful in enlisting only 212 men, which body participated in the raid on Fort Griswold and New London the following year.

Apartment ( n. )

1. A room in a building. In 1760 John Gait wrote, “Mr. Robinson conducted the artist to the inner apartment.”

2. A compartment. Washington in his 1760 diary reported that he “mixt my compost in a box with ten apartments.”


Bait ( v. )

Feed an animal. From Middle English baiten (to feed). In 1744 Dr. Alexander Hamilton wrote, “I baited my horse.

Barnish ( v. )

Grow stout or plump. “Ther was a maide that satt neare her [Goodwife Charles of New Haven in 1649] at meeting that did barnish apace.” She was probably as big as a barn.

Beastlings ( n. )

The first milk given after calving is rich and thick. A woman was described in 1723: “She does not know … how to boil a skillet of Beastlings … without letting it turn.”

Black ( adj. )

Brunette. When William Byrd in 1710 described “a pretty black girl,” he meant she was not a blonde.


Bogue ( v. )

To walk around. In 1775 one Rauck admitted, “We were four days boguing in the woods seeking the way.”

Bossloper ( n. )

An inhabitant of the woods. From the Dutch boschlooper (wood runner).

Butler ( n. )

A college officer at Yale and Harvard; among his duties was the charge of the buttery, the place where beer and ale were served. From Old French boterie (place for keeping bottles). The 1734 regulations at Harvard provided that “the butler shall take care that all fines imposed by the President … be fairly recorded.”

Candy ( n. )

Any crystallized substance resulting from evaporation, resembling crystallized sugar.

( v. ) To crystallize by evaporation. In 1629 William Bradford referred to “salt which they found candied by the sun.”


Chapel ghost ( n. )

The gremlin who mixes things up in a printing house. When type was messed up, Franklin said in 1771 it was “all ascribed to the chappel ghost.” A printing house is called a chapel because William Caxton did his printing in a chapel connected to Westminster Abbey in 1476.

Cheek music ( n. )

In a song, William Pitt’s eloquence was described as “cheek music.” By 1836 it had become “chin music.”

Chirk ( adj. )

In good spirits, cheerful. Probably a combination of cheer and perk . As early as 1789, in his Dissertations on the English Language , Noah Webster deplored that “this word is wholly lost except in New England.”

Chitterling ( n. )

In addition to the still-current meaning of pig’s intestines, this word in a 1776 New Jersey document meant a ruffle or frill down the front of a shirt. “A fine shirt with chitterlings on the bosom.” Such a frill resembled the mesentery, which connects the intestines to the abdominal cavity.

Clever ( adj. )

1. Well trained. In 1776 The Battle of Brooklyn referred to “clever horses.”

2. Good-natured, accommodating. A 1758 journal described “a very clever family.

Cleverly ( adv. )

1. In good health. Describing one who had been ill, Abigail Adams in 1784 said, “She is cleverly now.”

2. Completely. Jefferson wrote in 1788 that “revolution … is cleverly under way.”