10 Classic Literature Terms That Are No Longer Used (For the Most Part)
Reading a book from the 18th or 19th century is kind of like reading a handwritten, entirely cursive note from your grandmother in that, unless you have experience with such material, you will only understand 60% of the language used. Considering that it’s physically impossible for me to make it through any old book without an online dictionary open on my computer screen, I think it’s safe to say that there are some words used in classic literature that are not entirely common or have fallen out of use completely. For your convenience, I’ve compiled a list of some of the more obscure classic lit terms (or ones that are used less frequently today) because I feel selfish enjoying them all by myself:
Mackintosh/Macintosh (n.): waterproof raincoat
Can you believe Mac computers were invented in 1824? I guess Steve Jobs was older than we all thought… I’m kidding, of course. (To the one person that laughed at that joke, thank you.) Mackintosh refers to a type of waterproof raincoat commonly used during the 19th century. So before you see this word in your summer reading book for English class and call out the author for being anachronistic, remember that he or she is most likely not referring to a very expensive computer.
Pusillanimity (n.): cowardliness
Pusillanimity, which derives from pusillanimous, is too long and complicated to say, in my opinion, but I like it anyway because you shouldn’t reject something just because you don’t understand it. Have you all learned nothing from watching cheesy high school dramas with misunderstood bad boys?
Belly Timber (n.): food
I’m tempted to type this entire paragraph in caps because that’s how much I love this term. Really think about this phrase. Belly timber. Timber for your stomach. Is anyone else picturing a little campfire burning in their belly? No? Whatever. Regardless, I’m never using the word “food” ever again.
Wiseacres (n.): a know-it-all
I could tell you the real origin of this word but I think it would be more fun to offer my own interpretation: a wiseacre is someone whose brain is filled with acres of wisdom that other people tend to scoff at because their mental acres are overgrown or covered in rabbit feces.
Habiliments (n.): clothing
Because “clothes” and “attire” were far too boring. While this word was often used in older literature, it can also be found in some modern books such as To Kill A Mockingbird. Include it in your next essay if you want your teacher to give you an automatic A-plus (or if you want him/her to question your use of a thesaurus).
Messmates (n.): a person with whom one eats with regularly
You can have roommates. You can have classmates. You can have floormates. So why can’t you have messmates? The word, which does not mean “people you share a mess with” (although it should, because I almost like that better), describes a person whom one eats with at the mess hall, or, a lunch buddy.
Cavil (v.): to raise trivial objections; a quibble
Cavil means “to raise unnecessary objection to,” as in, “My friend caviled about my overuse of the word literally, but I just laughed and walked away because I literally didn’t care.” In that case, the objection might be necessary because, grammar, but you get the idea.
Palaver (v.): to talk unnecessarily at length; a long parley usually between persons of different cultures or levels of sophistication; tedious business
Confession: I included the second definition mostly because of the word parley. Phew. Glad I got that off my chest. What was I saying? Oh yeah. Palaver means to talk unnecessarily at length, kind of like what college students do when someone mentions Game of Thrones (or *another popular television show that can be used as a distraction from homework*).
Chafe (n.): argument, dispute
Nowadays, we use chafe when referring to a shirt that is too tight (“the collar is chaffing my neck”) but back in the day, chafe was more often used to describe a dispute or argument, as in “Chris Brown got in a terrible chafe with another singer in a parking lot but got away nearly free of charge, as usual.”
Rain Napper (n.): umbrella
Almost as entertaining as belly timber, rain napper is an old-fashion term for “umbrella.” Rain napper could revolutionize the umbrella industry if brought back into circulation. Rihanna’s song wouldn’t have the same ring to it (“You can stand under my rain napper, napper, napper, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh eh”…because apparently she’s Canadian in my head) but it would certainly make rainy days a lot more fun.
So next time Mr. Darcy says he’s going to go get his Mackintosh, don’t assume he’s a time traveling computer geek. Or if you do, at least be sure to make a nerdy (and PG-13) fan fiction out of it, because I’d be interested to see how that turns out.