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Vocab Words only a Colonist Can Teach You

March 21, 2014

williamsburg18By Sarah Vander Schaaff

We’ve recently returned to the twenty-first century having spent a few days hanging out with the settlers and revolutionaries of Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg. My kids will be talking about the experience for days and years to come, and certainly testing out the new words they learned during our trip back in time.

Take, for example, cannibalism. I’m sure our readers know the definition, but suffice it to say, my eight-year-old took a few seconds to process the term when she heard it for the first time moments after entering the visitor’s center in Jamestown.

Our present weather woes look lovely compared to the  “starving winter” of 1609-1610, when the settlers in the first English colony ate everything from rats to shoe leather to—yes, refer back to the first word of the day.

Moving on to synonyms for “stupid” we traveled a few miles from the James River to Colonial Williamsburg and to the later part of the 18th century where we learned: Blockhead.wig2

In this case, a blockhead is the wooden block carved like a head used by hat makers or wigmakers. These must have been quite useful and it’s a shame the word has taken on a rather derogatory meaning. Gone are the days when one might say, “Please put the hat on the blockhead” and not offend.

Speaking of blockheads, those wigs needed tending and if there was a party, plenty of powder.  Wealthy wig-wearers would retire to the powder room to get a fresh dousing of the stuff scented with lavender or orange.  If my daughter comes over for a play date and asks where the powder room is, now you know why. No need to provide talcum.

powderedwig2I asked the wigmaker in one shop if there were hygienic reasons for wearing wigs. No, she insisted, they were simply statements of style and wealth. She made no mention of the balding marks of Syphilis (new vocab word) or lice and the nitpicking required to delouse. I didn’t want to act like a big-wig, so I moved on.

Just as well, we had another point to clarify, and our happiness depended upon it.

We’d gotten to see Thomas Jefferson, looking quite well by the way, when he spoke in the garden near the Governor’s Palace. He reminded us that John Locke wrote of the pursuit of property, but he used the phrase, “…pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness was linked to the philosophy behind E pluribus unum,  “Out of many, one.” jefferson2

I’d need a little help with this one, and turned to a real dictionary (dictionary.com)  to find the “forgotten” meaning and context of the happiness Jefferson wrote of. They relate this story with Justice Anthony Kennedy doing the clarification.

“US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained this often forgotten sense of happiness in his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship. Kennedy notes that while in modern times there is a “hedonistic component” to the definition of happiness, for the framers of the Declaration of Independence “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Of all the terms that we might want to better understand by looking at the past, certainly happiness, as used in the Declaration of Independence, is near the top.

The irony of course, is that with each step back in time—from the harsh and anguished conditions in Jamestown to realities of slavery in Williamsburg, a visitor from our modern era is asked to consider what it means to suffer and what it means to seek happiness.

So kids, these words from the past have much to teach us. Finding happiness, after all, depends greatly on how you define it.

Happiness: that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.


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