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Word Wisdom: Feeling out of place?

An anachronism is something chronologically askew.
Word Wisdom


In Brian De Palmas’ movie The Untouchables (1987) the Canadian flag was painted on the side of some wooden crates. Set in Chicago in the 1930s, it stars Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Robert De Niro. The use of that version of the Canadian flag is an anachronism. The flag shown in the movie is the familiar red maple leaf design. However, in the 1930s, Canada flew the Red Ensign of the United Kingdom, embellished with the Arms of Canada as a shield in the bottom right quarter. The shield is divided into four quarters, consisting of the coats of arms of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Kingdom of France, the four founding nations of Canada.


An anachronism is a person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, especially one from a former age that is incongruous in the present. Joyce Maynard (1953-present), an American novelist and journalist, wrote, “By the time I reached my teens, the housewife was an anachronism, replaced on television by the perky, glamorous, character of That Girl, Marlo Thomas, who kept her boyfriend at bay in the interest of pursuing her acting career.”

Anachronism is derived from the Greek words ana (up, back, against) and kronos (time). It also has the connotation of an error in chronology, as it was first used in the 17thh century in English. Anachronism can also be the state or condition of being chronologically out of place.

An anachronism may be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional anachronisms may be introduced into a literary or artistic work to help a contemporary audience engage more readily with a historical period.

The film Marie Antoinette (2006), directed by Sophia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst, a movie that focuses on the life of the infamous French queen, has several anachronistic elements. In one shot, we see a young Marie Antoinette in her room with a pair of sneakers in the background. This anachronism is deliberate. Coppola wanted to portray her central character as a naive teenager who had never known a different world than the opulent one in which she lived. The sneakers help illustrate her teenage outlook and innocence.

The comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen incorporates intentional anachronisms as part of its storytelling and world-building. The story takes place in an alternate version of the Victorian age mixed with futuristic and speculative elements. The League itself consists of popular 19th century literary characters, like Captain Nemo and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who unite to protect Victorian England from threats that go beyond the constraints of the actual historical period. The series as a whole features advanced technology with a retro look, like airships and sophisticated steam-powered machinery, that did not exist in the actual Victorian era.

In the movie Back to the Future, the 1985 classic about time travel, teenager Marty McFly has gone back in time to his parents' prom in 1955. McFly performs the guitarist Chuck Berry's hit single Johnny B. Good, which was actually written in 1958, three years later. McFly, who happens to be performing the song in front of Chuck Berry's cousin, says that the song will be a big hit one day. The anachronism jokingly suggests that McFly changed the history of American pop music.

Unintentional anachronisms may occur when a writer, artist or performer is unaware of differences in technology, terminology and language, customs and attitudes, or even fashions between different historical periods and eras.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), starring Harrison Ford, a map illustrating Indiana Jones’ travels, has the archaeologist/explorer passing near Thailand on his way to Nepal. This is an anachronism as Thailand was named Siam until 1939. 

What we call an anachronism is not a recent thing. In 1440 Lorenza Valla exposed the document, the Donation of Constantine, a decree purportedly issued by the Emperor Constantine the Great in 315 AD, as a forgery, because it referenced the city of Constantinople, an anachronism, since the name was not used of the city of Byzantium until 330 AD.

William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (1599) includes a famous anachronism. Cassius alluded to a mechanical clock (“The clock hath stricken three”) in a play whose events take place more than a thousand years before mechanical clocks were invented.

Those who still hold to the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman could be considered an anachronism today.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 

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