The English language is an ever-changing beast. 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 can present a challenge when researching newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries, as search terms that we'd use today simply won't turn up any results.

It's good to note here that when searching for a word like 'assess', it might also be worth trying 'affess' and variations thereof. In the 18th century, people hadn't yet made their mind up on their 'f's and 's's, as demonstrated below on the cover of the April , 1720 edition of the Newcastle Courant. This is something that doesn't die out until well into the 19th century, so it's always good to note that if you're searching for the naval vessel on which your ancestor served, you're probably looking for 'the naval veffel on which your anceftor ferv'd'.


Further to that point, it is always worth remembering that spelling has changed along with language. When using 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' - will very often be 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 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


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

We've been keeping a list of some of the archaic terms and phrases that we've come across in our newspaper research. Let us know in the comments if you've found any more!

General terms and words

  • Leagues
    • One nautical league is around 3.4 miles, leagues are often referenced in accounts of naval encounters.
  • Betimes
    • In good time or early.
  • Scurrilities
    • Abusive or vulgar comments, accusations or writings.
  • Animadversion
    • Criticism or censure.
  • Lucubrations
    • A pedantic and overelaborate piece of writing (credit to Merriam Webster for that one).
  • Chearly
  • Chidden
    • The past participle of 'chide'.
  • Calumnious
    • Slanderous or defamatory.
  • Puncheon
    • A barrel that contained alcohol.
  • Wipe
    • Pocket handkerchief.

Military and naval

  • Bark (when used in a naval context)
    • 18th century English spelling of 'barque'
  • Man of War
    • A large warship, the term was used from the 16th century to the 19th.


  • Chirurgeon
    • Surgeon
  • Apothecary
    • Predecessors to modern pharmacists
  • Farinaceous
    • To have a mealy surface - often used when describing skin complaints
  • Imbecile
    • An unpleasant catch-all term for people with severe mental health problems or disabilities
  • Humours
    • The liquids that people believed needed to be balanced to maintain health.

Slang, including criminal slang

  • Swell
    • A rich man
  • Soup-meagre
    • An 18th century meat-free soup, also used as an insulting term for the French, as seen in the below anecdote from the February 6, 1861 edition of the Derry Journal


  • Shop-bouncers
    • Shoplifters
  • Prad-chervers
    • Horse and cattle thieves
  • Bilker
    • Embezzler
  • Pannymen
    • Housebreakers
  • Buzzmen
    • Pickpockets
  • Shake some dummies
    • Pick some pockets
  • Traps
    • Police officers

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Monday 12 November 1832Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.