14 Colonial-Era Slang Terms to Work Into Modern Conversation

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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When you think of Colonial America, soldiers marching to fife and drum and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite are probably what come to mind. But the Colonial Period—which stretched from roughly 1607 to 1776, starting when America was just a group of colonies on the east side of the continent and ending with the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—was a fascinating but complicated time in which settlers from England forged a proud new identity. These new settlers brought the English language with them when they came, and whenever English finds a new home, it often takes on a new life. America was no exception. Here are 15 slang words that were recorded in and around this period of American history.

1. Kedge

What It Meant: Doing well

In you lived in a country town in Colonial-era New England and someone asked how you were doing, you might have replied, “I’m pretty kedge.” It’s a bizarre but wonderful term that essentially means in being in good health—but it also kind of sounds like something a teen in an ‘80s movie would say.

2. Cat's-paw, or to be made a cat's-paw out of

What It Meant: To be a dupe, to be used as a tool.

This colorful expression came from a fable, The Monkey and the Cat, where a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire, promising the cat its share. Spoiler alert: The cat doesn't get any. So to be used for someone else's gain is to be made a "cat's paw out of."

3. Chuffy

What It Meant: Surly or impolite

If someone is short with you, tell them they don’t have to be so chuffy. It’s a strange, old word with obscure origins, and one that sounds a bit softer than “jerk.”

4. Scranch

What It Meant: To crack something between your teeth

Though this apparently “vulgar” term sounds like it was named after what it sounds like to crack something with your teeth, it supposedly comes from the Dutch word, schransen.

5. Gut-foundered

What It Meant: Very Hungry

This word, which dates to 1647, is believed to be regional Newfoundland slang. Gut-foundered could easily become a new hyperbole for us pampered moderns to employ, like “starving.”

6. Fishy

What It Meant: Drunk

Possibly no one invented more ways to say “drunk” than colonial Americans. Benjamin Franklin alone compiled 200 ways to say it. Fishy was meant to also imply the way the drinker looked: “Bleary eyes and turned-down mouth corners make a drunk resemble a fish,” writes Richard M. Lederer, Jr. at American Heritage.

7. Macaroni

What It Meant: Fancy

When Yankee Doodle called that feather hat “macaroni,” he wasn’t being a weirdo. Macaroni was a term used at the time to refer to a particular men’s fashion from England that was intentionally flashy, over-the-top, and androgynous.

8. Twistical

What It Meant: Unfair or immoral

This word—which according to 1848’s Dictionary of Americanisms was primarily used in New England—feels like it could just as easily have been invented today. Slip it into conversation in the next time you experience something unjust.

9. Savvy, Savey, or Sabby

What It Meant: To know or understand

While we still use this word to mean something like “literate” (computer-savvy), in Colonial times, it was actually used more like the way Jack Sparrow uses it. So you might say, “I don’t want to come to work anymore, savvy that?” According to Merriam-Webster, it’s derived from sabe, which means “he knows” in Portuguese. This became sabi in Creole, and later, “savvy.”

10. Adam’s Ale

What It Meant: Water

If you’re feeling thirsty for water, try using this slang term that was popular on both sides of the pond in the Colonial era. To quote a 1792 American poem by Philip Freneau, “In reason’s scale his actions weigh’d / His spirits want no foreign aid / Long life is his, in vigour passes / A spring that never grew stale / Such virtue lies in Adam’s Ale.”

11. Shaver

What It Meant: A young or adolescent boy

To call a boy a shaver was to imply that they were young enough that they just started shaving. Which is fitting, if a little condescending—like they’re not embarrassed enough already!

12. Jollification

What It Meant: Celebration or merrymaking

It's hard to even say jollification without sounding like a reenactor at Colonial Williamsburg. And though jollification sounds like it would be a good thing, it seems like there was also such a thing as too much jollification: The August 10, 1772 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet used the word in a morality tale about a man named Hilario: "What jolification [sic] could be complete without Hilario? Cards succeeded cards every morning to invite him to dinner, to routs, to dances; his only excuse was prior engagement, and he had not resolution to withstand the temptations.” By the end of the tale, according to Children In Colonial America, "a life of cards, women, and wanton spending slowly whittled away his wealth ... no woman would marry him, and even his good looks had failed him."

13. Simon Pure

What It Meant: The real deal, authentic, untainted

A delightful phrase that rolls off the tongue and could be dropped into many modern sentences. And when someone asks you, “who the heck is Simon?” you tell them that Simon Pure was a Quaker character who has to prove he’s the real Simon Pure in a 1718 play by Susanna Centlivre called A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

14. Circumbendibus

What It Meant: Roundabout

Of all the ways to describe something unnecessarily roundabout— like someone telling a rambling story or taking a weird road when driving somewhere—this word, which dates to 1681, might be the most delightful. It also shows how much we fun we had and still have with language, combining prefixes and suffixes to make new words.

Joe Gillard is the author of The Little Book of Lost Words, and the founder of History Hustle.

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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Why Did Noon Used to Mean 3 p.m.?

3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
3 p.m. is basically noon for people who wake up at 12 p.m.
Mckyartstudio/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a late sleeper, you might find yourself thinking 12 p.m. seems way too early to be considered midday, and the word noon would much better describe, say, 3 p.m. It turns out that ancient Romans would have agreed with you, if only for etymological reasons.

As Reader’s Digest explains, the days in ancient Rome were split into four periods of three hours each. The first hour was at sunrise around 6 a.m.—called prime, for first—followed by 9 a.m. (terce, denoting the third hour), 12 p.m. (sext, for sixth), and 3 p.m. (none, for ninth).

According to Merriam-Webster, Middle and Old English borrowed the time-keeping tradition, along with the Latin word for ninth, which was changed to nōn and eventually noon. Though we’re not sure exactly when or why noon started referring to 12 p.m. instead of 3 p.m., it could have something to do with Christian prayer traditions. In the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion is said to have taken place at the ninth hour, and that’s when worshippers partook in their second of three daily prayers; the others were in the morning and evening. It’s possible that hungry monks were behind noon’s gradual shift from 3 p.m. to 12 p.m.—since their daily fast didn’t end until after the midday prayer, they had a built-in motive for moving it earlier.

While we didn’t exactly stay true to the original Latin meaning of noon, there’s another important remnant of ancient Rome hiding in the way we tell time today. Romans referred to 12 p.m. as meridiem, for midday, and so do we. A.M. is an abbreviation for ante meridiem, or before midday, and P.M. means post meridiem, or after midday.

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