Skip to main content

Lost Words Of Colonial America: A Glossary

July 2024
4min read

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.”

Diaper ( n. )

A rich silk material originally called d’Ypres (from Ypres, Belgium). A 1686 inventory included “four diaper table cloths.”

Eye servant ( n. )

A servant one had to keep one’s eye on. In 1717 William Byrd described one who “would make an admirable overseer where servants will do as they are bid, but eye servants who want an abundance of over looking are not so proper to be committed to his care.

Feeze 1. ( n. )

Fretful excitement or alarm. From Middle English fesen (to drive away). A 1647 Rhode Island document included: “Without making any assault upon his person or putting him in a fease.”

2. ( v. ) To drive away. In 1689 Cotton Mather wrote, “A Devil would … make her laugh to see how he feaz’d ’em about.”

Fishy ( adj .)

Drunk. Bleary eyes and turned-down mouth corners make a drunk resemble a fish. A 1737 Philadelphia newspaper described a man as “fishy.”

Flight ( n. )

A light fall of snow. From Old English fliht (a snowflake). A 1670 Massachusetts document recorded, “This day was the first flight of snow this winter.”

Flourish ( n. )

Sexual intercourse engaged in hastily. In 1709, f710, and 1711 William Byrd entered in his diary, “I gave my wife a flourish this morning.” (Once it was on the billiard table.)

Freak ( n. )

A whim, caprice, vagary. From Old English frek (quick). On March 16, 1770, John Rowe recorded in his diary, “Mr. Samuel Otis got into a mad freak tonight and broke a great many windows in the Town House.”

Fribble ( n. )

A frivolous thing or person. In 1774 Philip Fithian referred to “manv womanish fribbles.”


Gallinipper ( n. )

A large biting mosquito or other insect; a gaily (bold) nipper. A 1701 document bewailed, “Poor brother Jenkins was baited to death with musquitoes and blood thirsty Gal-Knippers.”

Gossip ( n. )

1. Godparent. From Anglo-Saxon god sib (God related). In 1714 William Byrd recorded, “There came abundance of company and I and Dick Kennon with Jenny Boiling were gossips.”

2. Companion. In 1675 Mary Rowlandson, while a captive of Indians, wrote, “I … invited my master and mistress to dinner, but the proud gossip, because I served them both in one dish, would eat nothing.”


Gynecandrical ( adj. )

Common to both men and women. In 1684 Increase Mather deplored the fact that “there are questions regarding gynecandrical dancing or that which is commonly called mixed or promiscuous 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.”

Pot valiant ( adj. )

Courageous, valiant, stimulated by drink. In 1696 Gurdon Saltonstall wrote, “Foolish if not potvaliant firing and shooting off guns.”

Punk ( n. )

A prostitute. A character in a 1777 play said, “Rolling along arm in arm with his punk.”

Secret ( n. )

A privy. A 1787 Baltimore newspaper offered, “To be rented, a three story Brick House … with a large Smoke House & Secret, a large yard.”

Solemncholy ( adj .)

Excessively solemn. In 1773 Philip Fithian wrote, “Being very solemncholy and somewhat tired, I concluded to stay there all night.”

Undertaker ( n. )

An entrepreneur; one who undertakes something. In 1631 Thomas Dudley referred to “one of the five undertakers here, for the joint stock of the company.”

Vault ( n. )

A privy. Capt. Thomas Preston told of an event shortly before the Boston Massacre in 1770: “Two of the 29th going through Gray’s ropewalk, the ropemakers insultingly asked them if they would empty a vault … from words they went to blows.”


Whiskey ( n. )

A light, two-wheeled, one-horse carriage which whisked people around. In 1789 Gouverneur Morris said, “Madame Dumolley takes me in her whiskey.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.