The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Glossary


Chapter 1

Cornhill – part of Washington Street.  Now part of City Hall Plaza

Isaac Johnson – a settler (1601-1630) who left land to Boston; he died shortly after the Puritans arrived.  His land would be north of King’s Chapel (1688), which can be visited today.

burdock – any of several plants with large basal leaves and a purple-flowered head covered with hooked prickles

pigweed – any of several coarse weeds with dense, bristly clusters of small green flowers.  Also called lamb’s quarters

apple-peru – a plant that is part of the nightshade family; poisonous

portal – here, the prison door

Anne Hutchinson – a religious dissenter (1591-1643).  In the 1630s she was excommunicated by the Puritans and exiled from Boston.  She moved to Rhode Island.

Chapter 2

physiognomies – facial features and expressions supposedly indicative of character

Antinomian – a believer in the Christian doctrine that faith alone, not obedience to the moral law, is necessary for salvation; to the Puritans, the Antinomian doctrine is heretical

heterodox – religious person who disagrees with church beliefs; unorthodox

petticoat and farthingale – underskirts and hoops beneath them

gossip – a person who chatters or repeats idle talk and rumors

beadle – a minor parish officer who keeps order in church

ignominy – shame and dishonor; infamy

rheumatic flannel – material worn to keep warm, especially to ease the pain of rheumatism in the joints

an hour past meridian – 1:00 pm

Papist – a roman Catholic; the Puritans thought them to be heretics

Elizabethan ruff – an elaborate collar worn around the neck, consisting of tiny accordion pleats

pillory – stocks where petty offenders were formerly locked and exposed to public scorn

spectral – of, having the nature ofa specter; phantom; ghostly; supernatural

phantasmagoric – dreamlike, fantastic

Chapter 3

Daniel – a prophet from the Old Testament

Governor Bellingham (1592-1672) – the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony

halberds – combination battle-axes and spears used in the 15th and 16th centuries

skull-cap – a light, closefitting brimless cap, usually worn indoors

Chapter 4

Indian sagamores – chiefs or subchiefs in the Abnakis culture

stripes – welts on the skin caused by whipping

alchemy – the ancient system of chemistry and philosophy having the aim of changing base metals into gold.

simples – [Archaic] medicines from herbs or plants

leech – a doctor.  In Hawthorne’s time, blood-sucking leeches were used to effect a cure by removing blood

Lethe – the river of forgetfulness, flowing through Hades, whose water produces loss of memory in those who drink of it

Nepenthe – a drug supposed by the ancient Greeks to cause forgetfulness of sorrrow

Paracelsus (1493-1541)  – the most famous medieval alchemist; he was Swiss

bale-fire – an outdoor fire; bonfire; here, a beacon fire

Black Man – the Devil who “haunts the forest”

Chapter 5

ordinations – regulations; laws

sumptuary laws – laws set up by the colony concerning expenses for personal items like clothing

plebeian order – the commoners

emolument – profit that comes from employment or political office

a rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic – the gorgeous, exquisite, exotically beautiful

contumaciously disobedient – stubbornly resisting authority

talisman – anything thought to have magic power; a charm

Chapter 6

anathemas – cursed things or persons greatly destested

sprit – elf-like

gesticulation – a gesture, especially an energetic one

Luther – Martin Luther (1483-1546) – the first rebel against Catholicism; leader of the Protetstant Reformation in Germany

Chapter 7

cabalistic figures – secret or occult figures

a folio – tome; here, a large book

Chronicles of England – a history of England by Holinshed, written in 1577

tankard – a large drinking cup with a handle and often a hinged lid

steel headpiece, a cuirass, a gorget, and greaves . . . gauntlets – here, all parts of a suit of armor

Pequot war – raids on Indian villages by Massachusetts settlers in 1637

Bacon, Coke, Noye and Finch – English lawyers of the 16th and 17th centuries who added to British common law

exigencies – great needs; a situation calling for immediate action or attention

eldritch – eerie, weird

Chapter 8

King James – King James I (1603-1625) of England.  He ordered the translation of the Bible, now called the King James Version.

John the Baptist – the preacher who announced in the Bible the coming of Jesus.  He was beheaded by Herod whom he accused of adultery.

John Wilson – the Reverend John Wilson (1588-1667), a minister who was considered a great clergyman and teacher.  He was a prosecutor of Anne Hutchinson.

physic – [Archaic] medicine

The Lord of Misrule – a part acted out in court masques in England during the Christmas season.  He was part of a pagan, not Christian, myth.

a pearl of great price – see the story in Matthew 13:45-46, about a merchant who sold all his goods for one pearl of great worth, which represents the kingdom of heaven.  Wilsom is saying here that Pearl may find salvation.

New England Primer – a book used to teach Puritan children their alphabet and reinforce moral and spiritual lessons

Westminister Catechism – printed in 1648, it was used to teach Puritan religious lessons and the pillars of church doctrine

thithing-men – men who collect church taxes

Chapter 9

appellation – a name or title that describes or identifies a person or thing

ignominious – shameful; dishonorable; disgraceful

deportment – the manner of conducting or bearing oneself; behavior; demeanor

Elixir of Life – a subject of myth, a substance that was supposed to extend life indefinitely

pharmacopoeia – a stock of drugs

Oxford – Oxford University in England

importunate – urget or persistent in asking or demanding; insistent; refusing to be denied; annoyingly urgent or persistent

New Jerusalem – might mean Boston, the city on the hill

healing balm – an ointment used for healing

Gobelin looms – a tapestry factory in Paris that made the finest tapestries

David and Bathsheba – the biblical story of King David’s adultery with Bathsheba

erudition – learning acquired by reading and study; scholarship

vilified – defamed or abused

commodiousness – the condition of having plenty of room; spaciousness

Sir Thomas Overbury and Dr. Forman – the subjects of an adultery scandal in 1615 in England.  Dr. Forman was charged with trying to poison his adulterous wife and her lover.  Overbury was a friend of the lover and was perhaps poisoned.

Chapter 10

sexton – a church officer or employee in charge of maintenance of the church property

from Bunyans’ awful doorway – Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was an allegory of the late 1600s; the doorway is the entrance to hell.

dark miner – worker of the devil; in this case, Chillingworth

Holy Writ – the Bible

in Spring Lane – a crossroad in downtown Boston

Chapter 11

Pentecost – a Christian festival on the seventh Sunday after Easter; it celebrates the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles

a miracle of holiness – In a similar story of Hawthorne’s, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” the clergyman experiences a similar sympathy from sharing the sin of his fellow men.

the sanctity of Enoch – a man in the Bible who lived to be 365 years old.  Enoch was pure enough that he walked with God and went to heaven without having to die first.

Chapter 12

scourge – a whip used for flogging

expiation – atonement; to pay a penalty for something

Geneva cloak – a black cloak that Calvinist ministers wore

cope – a vestment worn by priests for certain ceremonies.  Here, anything that covers like a cope, a canopy over, or the sky

scurrilous – vulgar, indecent, abusive

Governor Winthrop – John Winthrop (1588-1649), first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony

Chapter 13

pristine – original or characteristic of an earlier period

Chapter 14

sedulous – hardworking and diligent

deleterious – harmful or causing injury

malignant – having an evil influence

nightshade, dogwood, henbane – plants used as poisons and in witches charms

horn-book – a sheet of parchment with the alphabet, table of numbers, etc on it, mounted on a small board with a handle and protected by a thin, transparent plate of horn.  It was formerly used as a child’s primer.

precocity – matured or developed beyond chronological age

asperity – harshness or sharpness of temper

Chapter 16

Apostle Eliot – the Rev. John Eliot who preached to Native Americans near Boston

scintillating – sparkling, bright, witty

scrofula – a tuberculosis of the lymph glands in the neck

Chapter 17

misanthropy – disturst or hatred of people

these iron men – here, meaning the stern Puritan forefathers who make the rules

Chapter 18

effluence – a flowing forth or outward

anemones and columbines – flowers of the buttercup family

nymph-child – a young maiden; here, Pearl

dryad – a nymph living in the forest among the trees

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

vicissitude – unpredictable changes or variations that keep occurring in life, fortune, etc.; shifting circumstances

vexed – distressed, afflicted, or plagued

disquietude – a disturbed or uneasy condition; restlessness; anxiety.

the Spanish Main – the Caribbean

Bristol – a British seaport

Election Sermon – the speech given when a governor is installed.  It is a great honor to be asked to give this speech.

irrefragable – that cannot be refuted; indusputable; impossible to change

mutability – ability to be changed

obeisance – homage, deference

buckramed – having a covering of cloth made stiff with paste

Ann Turner – an alleged witch who supposedly helped in the poisoning in the previously mentioned Overbury case

the new Jerusalem – another name for Boston; also, a place for sinners who have been saved

The King’s own mint-mark – here, a mark guaranteeing authenticity

Chapter 21

phlebian inhabitants – commoners

draught of the cup of wormwood and aloes – symbolically, a cup of bitter herbs; here, representing what Hester feels inside behind her composed face

Elizabethan epoch – the late 1500s, named for Elizabeth I and called the Golden Age in arts and literature

Cornwall and Devonshire – two countries in southwestern England

aqua-vitae – literally, water of life.  Here, a strong liquor such as whiskey

depredations – robbing, plundering laying waste

probity – uprightness in one’s dealings; integrity; honesty

scurvy or ship-fever – a disease caused by lack of vitamin C

mien – a way of looking; appearance

Chapter 22

College of Arms – a group which approves titles and coats of arms for hereditary aristocracy in England

Knights Templars – a medieval order of knights founded in 1119 in Jerusalem

morion – a hatlike, crested helmet with a curved brim coming to a peak in front and in back, worn in the 16th and 17th centuries

compeer – a person of the same rank or status; equal; peer

triple ruff – an elaborate collar

neocramancy – black magic; sorcery

plaintiveness – melancholy, suffering

indefatigable – untiring; not yielding to fatigue

disquietude – a disturbed or uneasy condition; restlessness; anxiety

Chapter 23

the utterance of oracles – the telling of wise predictions about the future

auditors – hearers or listeners

pathos – the emotion of compassion

transitory stay – a very brief stay, as in this life compared to an eternal one

zenith – the point directly overhead

apotheosized – elevated to the status of God, glorified, exalted

fathomless – too deep to be measured; incomprehensible

Chapter 24

portent – an omen

nugatory – trifling; worthless; invalid

parable – a short, simple story from which a moral or religious lesson may be drawn

recluse – a solitary person; shut away from the world

stigma – mark or brand; usually shameful

escutcheon – a shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms is displayed

sable – black

gules – red; a term used in heraldry


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