What is the history of the English word ‘anachronism’? This is the sort of question that (barring the difference of language) might well have engaged the attention of the diners who contribute to Plutarch’s Table-Talk or Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. In 2017, it seems more appropriate to raise this question in a web post rather than at a dinner party. And this post will itself seek to commemorate (just in time) a hitherto unheralded anniversary.
In a 2009 article ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, a scholar of comparative literature, Joseph Luzzi, suggested that the word ‘anachronism’ was ‘first used in English in 1669’, a century after it had first appeared in Italian. Deriving the word from ‘a fusion of the Greek compound meaning “late in time”’, and so from ‘the oldest of Western high-cultural idioms’, Luzzi went on to suggest that the word ‘was actually created millennia after that culture had disappeared’: ‘the term’s etymology stands both as an ironic gloss on its semantic connotations and an allegory for its thematic claims.’ In other words, Luzzi is commenting on the fact that a classically derived word for belatedness was itself surprisingly late to appear on the scene (though scarcely, pace Luzzi, ‘millennia’ after the disappearance of ancient Greek culture). Luzzi’s ironic and allegorical reading of the etymology can be seen as a literal instance of a theme central to our project: he invokes the supposed history of the term ‘anachronism’ as a way of separating off antiquity from its aftermath. A compelling counter-claim would be that that Greek culture whose disappearance Luzzi misdates has never disappeared at all.
While Luzzi does not cite a source for his claim that ‘anachronism’ began in 1669, he presumably based that claim on the Oxford English Dictionary, where an entry for 1669 is indeed cited ‒ ‘This error sprang from Anachronisme, and confusion of Histories’ ‒ from the puritan Theophilus Gale’s work The Court of Gentiles (sub-title: A discourse touching the original of human literature, both philologie and philosophie, from the Scriptures and Jewish church). The problem is that this is the second entry the OED cites under ‘anachronism’. Its claim to priority is outdone by a quote from a chronological work by John Gregory (1609-1646), a chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Dating the birth of Christ ‘Anno Mundi 3949, Anno Period. Jul. 4713, Olympiad 197, and 748 of Nabonassar’, Gregory explained that ‘this Connexion of things is called Synchronism’ while ‘an error committed herein is called Anachronism: and either saith too much, and that is a Prochronism; or too little, and that is a Metachronism’. This passage is cited from Gregory’s 1649 Posthuma, and so dated ‘a[i.e. ante]1646’, the year of his death.
If one follows the OED entry, the intellectual historian Peter Burke, author of more than one treatment of the Renaissance sense of anachronism, seems to be making a better stab of it when he writes that it was ‘around 1650 that the term ‘anachronism’ (anachronismus, anacronismo, anachronism) began to come into use in Latin, Italian, French and English’ ‒ at least as far as the English term is concerned (Luzzi is right that the word entered Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century; instances of Latin anachronismus are earlier still). The influence of the OED citation of John Gregory is clear in the definition Burke offers of the word at its first appearance: ‘a mistake made in the course of “synchronism”, in other words the attempt to translate from one chronological system into another.’ Burke is here concerned to differentiate this early technical sense from the ‘sense of anachronism’ which is his main concern, namely an idea of historical difference. He concludes that ‘to speak of the sense of anachronism of Mantegna or Erasmus is … literally speaking, anachronistic’.
Burke’s conclusion is correct as far as the meaning of ‘anachronism’ itself is concerned ‒ though it is important to note that the concept of historical change could be expressed before the word ‘anachronism’ came to be applied to it. Implicit in his claim about the history of the term, however, is an ideological construction of space. Behind the Latin anachronismus lurks the Greek noun anachronismos, formed from the verb anachronizō, first attested around AD 200. The stem of ‘anachronism’ had been in existence for more than a millennium when Mantegna and Erasmus were alive, then, but only in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It was during Mantegna’s lifetime (c. 1431‒1506), however, that manuscripts containing the word were first transported to Italy, and during Erasmus’ (1466‒1536) that those manuscripts were first published. Burke’s claim about the anachronism of speaking of anachronism is as much a claim about where the word was used as it is about when or how.
The problem with Burke’s reliance on the OED entry for ‘anachronism’ is that that entry itself commits an anachronism. The search facilities provided by the online OED throw up an earlier appearance of the word under ‘hysterosis’ in William Lisle’s 1623 edition with translation of A Saxon treatise concerning the Old and New Testament, written by a monk called Aelfricus. Lisle took a phrase used by Aelfricus, ‘Lingua Britannica’, to be a reference to old English, ‘by Hysterosis or Anachronisme (a figure much used in Historie, yea even in the Bible)’. Here the word is not used in the chronological sense of a breach of synchronism but as a term of literary criticism ‒ the sense in which it is most commonly used in Byzantine Greek.
As the OED advances alphabetically, it reveals a still earlier usage of ‘anachronism’, again as a literary figure. In a sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church in Oxford in Easter week, 1617, John Hales, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed the Biblical text ‘Which the vnlearned and vnstable wrest, as they doe the other Scriptures, vnto their owne destruction’ (2 Peter 3.16). His aim was to warn against unwarranted projections of Calvinist doctrines onto obscure Biblical passages:
The Iewish Rabbines in their Comments on Scripture so oft as they met with hard and intricate texts, out of which they could not wrest themselues, were wont to shut vp their discourse with this, Elias cum venerit, solvet dubia: Elias shall answer this doubt when he comes. Not the Iewes only, but the learned Christians of all ages haue found many things in Scripture which yet expect Elias. For besides those texts of Scriptures, which by reason of the hidden treasures of wisdome, and depth of sense & mysterie laid vp in them, are not yet conceau’d, there are in Scripture of things that are ὕστερα πρότερα [‘later earlier’], seemingly confus’d, ἐναντιοφανῆ [‘opposite-seeming’], carrying semblance of contrarietie, anachronismes, metachronismes, and the like, which bring infinite obscuritie to the text: there are I say in Scripture more of them, then in any writing that I knowe secular or divine.
Why the mistake in the OED entry for ‘anachronism’? The misleading date it gives for the first appearance of the word could, at a pinch, be taken as a subtle in-joke, the entry for ‘metachronism’ metachronically revealing an anachronism in the entry for ‘anachronism’. But it is easy enough to understand why the editors of the original OED (or rather: A new English dictionary on historical principles), despite their formidable filing systems, failed to pick up these earlier usages; and the dictionary itself appeared in fascicles over the course of 44 years, with the entries for ‘anachronism’, ‘hysterosis’, and ‘metachronism’ first appearing in 1884, 1899, and 1906. Those editors are rather to be admired for their coverage: using digital resources such as Early English Books Online I can find no earlier instance of the word in English.
Our anniversary-conscious age has made much of Luther and Lenin this year. The first recorded use of ‘anachronism’ in English is not quite in the same league as the Reformation or the Russian Revolution. But it is still worth remembering that sermon delivered in Oxford a century after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, three hundred years before Lenin travelled by train to the Finland station. Even if this anniversary may itself one day be shown to be an anachronism …
- Peter Burke, ‘The sense of anachronism from Petrarch to Poussin’, in C. Humphrey and W. M. Ormrod, eds, Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, 2001), 157-74.
- Joseph Luzzi, ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, Comparative Literature 61 (2009), 69-84.