Ben Zimmer has a Visual Thesaurus post on the language of Lincoln (see this LH post) with some good examples of anachronisms that I completely missed, like “imagine the possibilities,” “I like our chances,” “patronage jobs,” and “lame-duck Congress.” Even “the Thirteenth Amendment” is a term that would not have been used by politicians of the time.
But what really excited me was this:

Benjamin Schmidt, a doctoral student at Princeton University and a fellow at Harvard University’s Cultural Observatory, has reached many fascinating conclusions by comparing scripts from period dramas with historical language use as reflected by the digitized volumes on Google Books. Check out his Prochronisms site for more, as well as his appearance on the Lexicon Valley podcast.

One thing that is clear from Schmidt’s work is that while screenwriters (and audiences) may have a good ear for discerning when individual words are anachronistic, it’s less easy to pick out when combinations of words are unlikely to have been used in a historical setting.

I’m not a podcast kind of guy, but I’m bookmarking Prochronisms, because that’s my kind of site.


  1. Lin Carter, an author and editor of science fiction and fantasy, suggested another word I haven’t seen used: anamundism, a concept which doesn’t belong in the world of a particular text.
    He was reading the manuscript of a really bad sword and sorcery epic in which the hero pays 300 *dollars* for something. Dollars just didn’t belong in that world.
    The search engine Duckduckgo gets 6 hits for the word; Google gets only 5 hits.

  2. A fun fact with wider implications that I picked out of that site: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton, published in 1920 but set in the 1870s, is absolutely riddled with anachronistic dialogue. It no longer sounds so, because we don’t have a sharp awareness of what was commonplace almost a hundred years ago but unknown fifty years before that; it all sounds equally neutral, or equally archaic, as the case may be.
    I’ve fulminated against people who write historical fiction and check their writing against a list of words that appear in Jane Austen, or whatever. It’s obviously too restrictive, and even the OED can’t catch words that were already in oral use but not recorded in print that has survived (a small fraction of all print, surely). But it occurred to me the other day that narrative voice has a bearing on the matter. If you are writing in limited third person, the reader gets the character’s thoughts, which should not be anachronistic either, as in making comparisons to things that don’t exist yet. (This is perfectly in decorum for an involved (“omniscient”) narrator, as when Tolkien compares one of Gandalf’s fireworks to an express train coming out of a tunnel.)
    Nevertheless, this doesn’t go beyond vocabulary: even in a novel like Ruled Britannia, where the dialogue is in Early Modern English syntax, the book’s narration is not, though we are restricted to the single viewpoint character of Shakespeare.

  3. Jeffry House says

    This whole topic is postprerous.

  4. Anamundism is an anaglottism, and should be anacosmism (which actually gets a full six times as many ghits, or should once this comment is cached).

  5. George Grady says

    Is there a pun in the post’s title (“Panchronisms”) that I’m missing? I know, having to explain the joke just ruins it…

  6. ‘Anatopism’ gets about 400 times as many raw ghits as ‘anacosmism’, the first being a Wikipedia entry. Doubtless because of the analogy of uchronia/utopia….
    I will now scroll down to the Preview/Post buttons and select the latter.

  7. I don’t suppose Edith Wharton would have cared, although Tolkein knew what he was doing. When did anacronistic dialogue first become an issue to consider?

  8. The Prochronisms site looks like it has really interesting content, but the design is trying way too hard. It’s a confusing mess.

  9. I don’t agree that the Prochronisms site is a mess. I think its layout, with bits that move, is great.

  10. mollymooly says

    You can usually tell from the hairstyles when a BBC costume drama was made.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Not only TV costume drama, but a lot of movies set in previous periods of history. Movies set in Egypt or Rome in the 20’s or even the 60’s look ridiculous today, even though the costumes and makeup might have seemed realistically antique at the time. Even for periods when there is ample documentation such as realistic portraits and sculptures, modern “reenactments” are very soon dated.
    A few years ago I saw the Claudius TV series (based on Robert Graves’ books, that I had read with great enjoyment) and I thought that what Augustus was wearing at home (a kind of homespun t-shirt over shorts, if I remember rightly) looked totally bizarre for the period and the man’s position as emperor. But perhaps this was because statues of him or any other highly-placed Roman men only represented them ready for public display, whether around the Senate or in connection with military exploits.

    The word “dollar” can be traced etymologically to the Austrian coin “Thaler,” first minted in 1520, and if my memory is correct, “dollar” is even found somewhere in Shakespeare (The Tempest?). So maybe “dollar” isn’t anachronistic in a “sword and sorcery epic”, as long as the story is represented as having taken place after 1520.

  13. Wouldn’t that have to be a musket and conjuring epic?

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  15. Marie-Lucie: Augustus was in fact famous for his low standard of living. Here’s Suetonius Div. Aug. 72-73 (emphasis added):
    In other matters, it appears that he was moderate in his habits, and free from suspicion of any kind of vice. He lived at first near the Roman Forum, above the Ring-maker’s Stairs, in a house which had once been occupied by Calvus the orator. He afterwards moved to the Palatine Hill, where he resided in a small house belonging to Hortensius, no way remarkable either for size or ornament; the piazzas being but small, the pillars of Alban stone, and the rooms without any thing of marble, or fine paving.
    He continued to use the same bed-chamber, both winter and summer, during forty years: for though he was sensible that the city did not agree with his health in the winter, he nevertheless resided constantly in it during that season. If at any time he wished to be perfectly retired, and secure from interruption, he shut himself up in an apartment at the top of his house, which he called his Syracuse or Technophuon, or he went to some villa belonging to his freedmen near the city. But when he was indisposed, he commonly took up his residence in the house of Mecaenas. Of all the places of retirement from the city, he chiefly frequented those upon the sea-coast, and the islands of Campania, or the towns nearest the city, such as Lanuvium, Praeneste, and Tibur, where he often used to sit for the administration of justice, in the porticos of the temple of Hercules.
    He had a particular aversion to large and sumptuous palaces; and some which had been raised at a vast expense by his grand-daughter, Julia, he levelled to the ground. Those of his own, which were far from being spacious, he adorned, not so much with statues and pictures, as with walks and groves, and things which were curious either for their antiquity or rarity; such as, at Capri, the huge limbs of sea-monsters and wild beasts, which some affect to call the bones of giants; and also the arms of ancient heroes.
    His frugality in the furniture of his house appears even at this day [ca. 121 C.E.], from some beds and tables still remaining, most of which are scarcely elegant enough for a private family. It is reported that he never lay upon a bed, but such as was low, and meanly furnished. He seldom wore any garment but what was made by the hands of his wife, sister, daughter, and grand-daughters. His togas were neither scanty nor full; and the clavus [purple stripe] was neither remarkably broad or narrow. His shoes were a little higher than common, to make him appear taller than he was. He had always clothes and shoes, fit to appear in public, ready in his bed-chamber for any sudden occasion.

  16. sounds like a very sympathetic emperor 🙂
    maybe i should watch the series or read the book if i can find those

  17. narrowmargin says

    I’m glad to know that “aye” is pronounced to rhyme with “bay” (when used to mean “ever”), because I just came across it in The Tempest.
    It’s in Act II, Sc. 1 and, in my three editions, it falls on lines 279, 280, and 285.
    I’m glad because none of those editions glosses the proper pronunciation. Not even the one edited by the late great Frank Kermode.

  18. marie-lucie says

    JC: Augustus’ clothes: He seldom wore any garment but what was made by the hands of his wife, sister, daughter, and grand-daughters. His togas were neither scanty nor full; and the clavus [purple stripe] was neither remarkably broad or narrow.
    In other words, he dressed like most other men of his class and did wear togas, at least in public. What puzzled me about his attire in the series was not so much the rough quality of the material of the clothes he was wearing, but the unusual cut, which included sleeves (not long ones, but sleeves nevertheless). The young men in the series wore tunics at home. In mosaics you often see men wearing a kind of t-shirt and shorts, but those men are usually at the bottom of the social scale, such as gladiators or animal handlers. The comment you quote suggests that at least in public, Augustus dressed like an average upper-class Roman man of mature age.
    Incidentally, the fact that his clothes were made from material spun and woven by the women of his family does not mean that they were of poor quality, even if they were not the finest linen available: most women, even at the top of the social scale, were trained as spinners and weavers, and that was their major occupation (which was also a clean and noiseless one). (See the book by Elizabeth Barber I referred to in another thread).

  19. Augustus apparently wore proper, but unornamented, clothing in public; that’s not inconsistent with wearing very lower-class, but comfortable, clothing at home.

  20. Yes, that must be it. Did anyone else see any part of the series? Other people’s clothes did not strike me particularly, but Augustus’ attire at home looked very un-Roman.

  21. I seem to remember, from something I read long ago in high school while studying Latin, that Roman household attire for men was much as I, Claudius depicts it.

  22. marie-lucie says

    It occurred to me to look up Wikipedia about ancient costumes and similar articles. I found a picture supposedly representing a Roman man at home. He wore an undergarment with short sleeves, and over that a tunic. Tunics (worn by both men and women, the difference being the length) were made of two pieces of cloth, fastened at the shoulders with some kind of pins and at the waist by a belt. In order to make this garment, the woven cloth was cut straight across, not cut according to the contours of the body and then sewn, like most of what we wear nowadays. This way of cutting and wearing the cloth means that the part between the shoulders in front is more or less draped downwards (a popular women’s style right now). But this is not what Augustus was wearing in my recollection, I don’t think there was any draping in front, that’s why it did not look Roman to me.

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