catching fire Next post: 8 words you need to know to survive The Hunger Games

Doctor Who through time Previous Post: The language of Doctor Who, Part 2

Thanksgiving dinner

From 1621 to 1863: giving thanks for new words of old

America’s “First Thanksgiving” is often attributed to the early 17th century (1621, in fact) when a small band of Pilgrims gathered with a small band of American Indians to partake together of a bountiful harvest at Plymouth Plantation. This celebration lasted a whopping three days—and it wasn’t called “Thanksgiving”. Only in 1863 was the annual tradition of Thanksgiving, as we know it today, first established: though earlier U.S. presidents would sporadically call the nation to celebrate a day of “Thanksgiving”, or remembrance and gratitude for a specific occasion, it was only after Abraham Lincoln’s own proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1863 that Thanksgiving Day would continue to take place annually at the end of November in the United States.

Though there are many recent Thanksgiving-related word coinages—Thanksgivikkuh, a contender for Oxford’s 2013 Word of the Year), springs to mind—it’s also interesting to look back at the years 1621 and 1863 for the word coinages of those times. Not only do they tell us a little about the respective climates of those eras, these words also happen to show some uncanny foresight into Thanksgivings of the future.

Times of hardship

The years 1621 and 1863, though nearly 250 years apart and on opposite sides of the Revolutionary War, were nevertheless both characterized by uncertainty and hardship in the United States—characterizations which, in turn, are reflected in the word coinages of the times. 1863, smack dab in the middle of the Civil War, was another heartbreaking and bloody year as American took up weapon against American. Indeed, mortality rate was first documented in 1863, as well as a now-obsolete sense of the word powderous, ‘caused by the explosion of gunpowder’.

1621 saw difficulty across the settlements that would eventually become one nation, as settlers often struggled to coax crops from the land and survive brutal winters and disease. By then many settlers had already died, and the Pilgrims (the English settlers of what would later become Plymouth, Massachusetts) were no exception. Though having landed in the New World the year before, after a harrowing transatlantic sea trip on the Mayflower (maggot-eaten, in fact, is first documented in 1621) and a bitter winter, only 47 individuals were left alive. The adverb in mourning meaning ‘wearing clothes customarily indicative of bereavement’ is also first documented in 1621, as well as heart-rending, heartbroke, and heart-tearing. Furthermore, as with mortality rate in 1863, a new sense of mortality was first attested in this year: ‘the number of deaths which occurs in a given area or period, from a particular disease, etc.’ Though these words did not specifically originate in the writings of the Pilgrims themselves, it seems likely that they would have been known to many at this time—and, unfortunately, apt.

Remembering that 1621 and 1863 were painful years for Pilgrims and Americans alike makes it even more apparent why days of giving thanks would have been comforting. Aided largely by American Indians and having overseen a plentiful harvest after a difficult voyage and winter, the Pilgrims must certainly have been grateful to know they had enough to subsist on, as well as tools for the future. And, almost 250 years later—though “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity”—Abraham Lincoln would call Americans to again give thanks: “peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.” It seems no exaggeration to say that Thanksgiving was truly born in the wake of hardship.

Food comas to come

On a lighter note, word coinages of 1621 and 1863 also—interestingly—reflect another aspect of Thanksgiving tradition as we define it today: food. Pumpkin pie, for instance, has a tie to the year 1621 in the coinage of the word allspice, or ‘the dried aromatic fruit of a Caribbean tree, used whole or ground as a culinary spice’ and quite common in pumpkin pie recipes (it’s so-named because it has been supposed to combine the flavor of other commonly used spices, especially cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and black pepper). In 1863, the word pie-biter would be documented for the very first time as well, and it means exactly what it looks like: ‘a person who eats pies; a person who has a particular fondness for pies’ (in addition to ‘a greedy person or animal’, and later, ‘a person who accepts political favors‘). And let’s not forget overeater (coined by John Donne, in fact) and overweight: these words were also first evidenced in 1621. They may be particularly useful during Thanksgiving celebrations even 400 years later, when many find they need to loosen their belts a notch or two after dinner.

Remembering words of yore

If you are celebrating Thanksgiving this year, feel free to wow your family as they are gathered round the dinner table with your newfound knowledge of these Thanksgiving words, coined in two significant years in United States history. And while you’re at it, why not encourage your loved ones to try out these unusual words too? (Though no longer in much use, or even obsolete, these words are too pertinent not to try out at least once.)

(1621) mischieving, adj.
How you and your cousins act when you get together on the holiday.

(1621) moilingly, adv.
From a great verb now only used regionally in British English, moil: ‘to toil, work hard.’ Time to thank your Uncle George for that turkey he moilingly roasted to perfection.

(1863) potato-separator, n.
Could be useful for efficient potato mashing!

(1863) mickle-mouth, adj.
Meaning ‘having a large mouth’, isn’t this what we all wish for when confronted with that enormous plate of food?

Happy Thanksgiving!

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.