Words to the Wise 1765 dictionary’s definitions illuminate the present

The definition of “plague” from 255 years ago. | Photo by John Jett


By Jeana Jett

Photos by John Jett

A new wave of urgency comes over me as more people are getting vaccinated and we’re on the path to greater freedom: I have not completed the “to-do” list I made in March 2020 when staying at home became the norm for the unforeseeable future. A whole year to get a lot of unglamourous but necessary house-related chores completed, and still a slew of undone tasks.

Purging books on the shelves and in boxes was on the list long before lockdown. There is no excuse for not tackling this seemingly straightforward task before I resume pre-pandemic activities. If I don’t tend to this chore now, I may not get around to it before the next cataclysm.

I breeze through the shelves and set aside the books I may someday re-read: “A Brief History of Time,” “Things Fall Apart,” and “The Dallas Symphony Orchestra Cookbook.” A bag of books for my daughter and grandchildren and a generous box of books for Goodwill. I re-read and re-shelve the book that always makes me cry, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”

Then, on to opening a sealed box hauled in from the storage area. From the box I lift something enveloped in yellowed crinkling-with-age plastic wrap. It appears to be an old and fragile book.

Purging books and speeding through the “to-do” list just came to a screeching halt. I am pleasantly distracted by the find. I carefully remove the plastic wrap and reverently open the deteriorating thick leather-bound cover. What I have in my hands is a 3-inch-thick book published in London in the year MDCCLXV.

That would be 1765 A.D.

Unbeknownst to me until now, this 255-year-old book has been in my possession since my mother’s death in 2016. It resided among some other books in a sealed box we did not get around to opening following my mother’s move from Texas to Monterey. My mother probably purchased it when she was out “junking around,” as she called antique shopping. It certainly is not a family heirloom, but it might become one in the future.

The old reference book is entitled:

A New General Englifh Dictionary; Peculiarly calculated for the Use and Improvement Of fuch as are unacquainted with the Learned Languages.

(I won’t delve into the grammar of the era, but the “f- likeness” is really a “s” in Old English.)

And the 1765 Dictionary’s subtitle?

Together with a Supplement of the proper Names of the most noted Kingdoms, Provinces, Cities, Towns, Rivers ETC. throughout the known World.

“Throughout the known World.”


The definition of 'plague' from 255 years ago. | Photo by John Jett

Now that is a phrase that resonates 255 years later when my “known World” suddenly seems to be very Unknown.

Slowly I leaf through the dictionary, curious to know if I will find definitions that inform the most trending 2020 words. Suspecting that I will not find “pandemic,” “asymptomatic” and “virus” in a 1765 dictionary, I am not surprised.

Being a lover of words, I begin researching synonyms and related words, and how the 1765-ers explained their “known World.” In the 1765 dictionary, here are words and definitions I found.

PLAGUE — Any sort of trouble, vexation, or affliction whatever; but particularly means any general, contagious, and pestilent distemper that affects any particular country, city, ETC. and occasions the inhabitants thereof to die in great numbers, and very speedily.


Quarantine was a term well known in 1765 with a surprisingly long and detailed definition. | Photo by John Jett

EPIDEMIK In physiks, is sometimes used for a contagious or catching disease, communicable from one to another, such as the plague, pox, ETC. but it is more particularly meant of a general or spreading disorder by means of a contagious or infectious corruption of the air, whereby people are universally affected without communicating with others.

QUARANTINE — A custom observed at Venice, by virtue whereof all merchants, or others, coming from the Levant, are obliged to remain 40 days in the house of St. Lazarus, before they are admitted into the city; but if the passengers bring letters of health, this time is frequently shortened; but without such testimonial, or if the plague happens to be in the place from whence the ship came, then the whole company are obliged to stay the whole time in the house of health, to be purified, though not one of them be sick, and likewise all the cargo, which they fancy capable of infection from the air, ETC. and if any of the quarantineers fall sick of the distemper within the 40 days, the time is doubled. This house is built in the water, and surrounded with a wall, in which there are several apartments; some are shut up, and restrained in their conversation, and those whose time is nearly finished, are not permitted to talk with those who are but just come in: If any person is desirous to see a friend shut up in this Lazaretto, he must stand at some distance; and if any visitor touch a person that is performing quarantine, he must be confined, and stay as long as the director shall please to appoint to be thoroughly purged; all manner of provisions are brought hither from the city, and every person may have his food dressed as he please. In the times of the plague, England and all other nations, oblige those that come from infected places to perform quarantine with their ships, ETC. a longer or shorter time, as may be judged most safe; also the privilege allowed to the widows of landed men, to stay or remain 40 days after their decease in their chief mansion-house or messuage; also the time of Lent, or abstaining from flesh 40 days, according to the church appointment annually.

APOCALYPSE — A discovering or revealing something, particularly applied to the Revelation of St. John: Some have affirmed Cerinthus the heretick to be the author of it; and in the first centuries many churches disowned it to be canonical; but since the fourth century it has been generally received. There are many spurious books under this name, which have had their abbetors, and been affirmed to be wrote, some by St. Peter, others by St. Paul, ETC.

RESILIENT — The quality of leaping up, rebounding, or recoiling backward.


Hope springs eternal, in 1765 and in present day. | Photo by John Jett

HOPE — Expectation, trust, affiance in, and dependence upon another; The Ancients represented Hope by a beautiful child in a long robe hanging loose, standing on tip-toes, holding a trefoil in its right hand, and a silver anchor in its left.

I did not expect the 1765ers to concern themselves with what now preoccupies me, that is, how our Democracy will survive.

From the dusty pages of the 1765 dictionary:

DEMOCRACY — A form of government, wherein the supreme authority is in the hands of the people.

How beautifully and reassuringly documented 255 years ago.

DEMOCRACY will guide us through the PLAGUE, EPIDEMIK, QUARANTINE, and the APOCALYPSE, given a healthy dose of RESILIENCE — I HOPE.

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Jeana Jett

About Jeana Jett

Jeana Jett, former educator and administrator, now activist, lives with her husband John in Monterey and with immediate family nearby. She writes from belief in life’s abundance and from a keen sense of wonder about Everything.