The Grammarphobia Blog

A smoldering anachronism

Q: I’m shocked, shocked to have read this in the NY Times: “Hanging over the debt ceiling negotiations in Washington has been the threat that the United States could lose its AAA credit rating, a coveted measure of the federal government’s financial strength. But in corporate America, the top rating long ago became an anachronism.”  Well, the US lost its AAA rating and maybe the NYT should too. That use of “anachronism” is just wrong. Someone has to uphold some standards. Perhaps you hold some sway with the wayward Times editors.

A: You’re right that the word “anachronism” was misused in that Aug. 2, 2011, article in the New York Times.

The reporter should have called the corporate AAA rating “a rarity,” as the headline writer did: “AAA Rating Is a Rarity in Business.”

But do we have any sway with Times editors? Fuggedaboutit! It’s been ages since we worked for the Gray Lady.

As for “anachronism,” English borrowed the word from French in the 17th century, but its roots are in the Greek words for backward and time.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English word originally referred to an error in calculating time or fixing dates.

The earliest citation in the OED, dated sometime before 1646, is from Posthuma, a tract by the Orientalist John Gregory: “An error committed herein is called Anachronism.”

In the 19th century, the OED says, the word took on the sense that’s most common today: “Anything done or existing out of date; hence, anything which was proper to a former age, but is, or, if it existed, would be, out of harmony with the present.”

The first citation in the dictionary is from The Statesman’s Manual (1816), by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “If this one-eyed Experience does not seduce its worshipper into practical anachronisms.”

Here’s a more recent cite, from Mary McCarthy’s 1952 novel The Groves of Academe: “She herself was a smoldering anachronism, a throwback to one of those ardent young women of the Sixties, Turgenev’s heroines.”

Not all anachronisms, however, are throwbacks. Some of them go in the other direction—anachronistically forward, like a noticeable jet trail seen in a movie that’s set in the Old West.

We recently wrote a posting about anachronistic references in the television show Mad Men.

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