Find what you're looking, and understand what you're looking at, by familiarising yourself with the vocabulary of the time

The English language is ever-changing. If you were to travel more than two centuries or so into the past, it's highly unlikely you'd be able to understand a word anyone said, such is the speed at which it evolves and adapts. This presents a challenge when researching newspapers from the 18 th and 19th centuries. Therefore, searching using spellings and phrases of the time is a must if you want to stand any chance of finding what you're looking for.

Special Substitutes

When searching for a word like 'assess', it might also be worth trying 'affess' and variations thereof. That's because in the 18th century, people hadn't yet made their minds up on the use of the letters f and s, as demonstrated below on the cover of a 1720 edition of the Newcastle Courant. This practise didn't die out until well into the 19th century, so if you're searching for the naval vessel on which your ancestor served, for example, you're probably looking for 'the naval veffel on which your anceftor ferv'd'.

A confusing lack of consistency on display in the Newcastle CourantImage © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Archaic Spellings

It's always worth remembering, too, that spelling changes along with language. When searching British and Irish newspapers, take the differences in modern spelling into account, but also try a variation on them. In our research, variations on modern spelling that we see frequently - particularly in 18th century newspapers - include 'compleat', 'publick', 'Catholick' and 'negociations'. Words like these - with a hard c, a longer e or a soft t - are often adapted in this way.

Another variation is to replace the final 'e' in a word with an apostrophe, for example 'conceal'd', 'assail'd', 'complain'd'. This won't, however, be the case with words where the 'e' is shorter, such as 'repeated', 'assaulted' or 'taken'.

All of the above quirks can be seen on display here, in the Stamford Mercury - Thursday 09 January, 1729 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Wildcards can help you to get around these spelling oddities when searching. Find out more about those here.

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Words and Phrases of Note

Some of the archaic words and phrases we've come across in our newspaper research.


Animadversion = Criticism or censure

Betimes = In good time or early

Calumnious = Slanderous or defamatory

Chidden = The past participle of 'chide'

Did away with themselves = Committed suicide

Leagues = One nautical league is around 3.4 miles and they are often referenced in accounts of naval encounters

Lucubrations = A pedantic and overelaborate piece of writing (credit to Merriam Webster for that one)

Puncheon = A barrel that contained alcohol

Scurrilities = Abusive or vulgar comments, accusations or writings

Wipe = Pocket handkerchief

Military and Naval

Bark = 18th century English spelling of 'barque'

Man of War = A large warship, the term was used from the 16th century to the 19th

The war = The First World War. Of course, it didn't become the First World War until the second had taken place!


Apothecary = Predecessors to modern pharmacists

Chirurgeon = Surgeon

Farinaceous = To have a mealy surface - often used when describing skin complaints

Humours = Liquids believed to help maintain health

Imbecile = An unpleasant catch-all term for people with severe mental health problems or disabilities

Slang, Including Criminal Terms

Bilker = Embezzler

Buzzmen = Pickpockets

Pannymen = Housebreakers

Shake some dummies = Pick some pockets

Shop-bouncers = Shop lifters

Soup-meagre = An 18th century meat-free soup, also used as an insulting term for the French, as seen in the below anecdote

Derry Journal - February 6, 1861Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Swell = A rich man

Traps = Police officers

Contemporary slang as reported in Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Monday 12 November, 1832Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

By no means comprehensive, this list is intended to highlight a few archaic phrases and words we're particularly fond of, but also to introduce you to the idea of adapting your search terms to reflect the language of the era you're researching. Not finding what your looking for in the newspapers? Head to Google and see if there's an old-fashioned replacement for the search terms you're using.

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