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Old Words, New Lessons: Helping Students Navigate the Language of the Past

Community newspapers serve as a treasure trove of information, encapsulating the essence of a period in the past. They often document everyday life and local events, making history feel more relevant and accessible to students. National and international news can be contextualized through them within a familiar local setting, heightening students’ interest and understanding.  Digitization and online access to these papers, along with a community’s other historical pictures, books, and documents, has created access in a way that fosters a deeper connection between students and the past, allowing them to touch, feel, and understand history at a local and more personal level. Introducing these sources into the classroom allows us to make history come alive for our students, moving away from rote memorization to active exploration and inquiry.

Before integrating newspaper research into a curriculum, a critical first step is familiarizing yourselves and your students with the distinctive characteristics of these primary sources. Everything from their language and reporting style to their cultural context and journalistic objectives can significantly diverge from what we are used to encountering in modern media. The students might require guidance in interpreting these sources.

Historical newspapers are fascinating artifacts that offer a unique window into the past. However, deciphering their contents requires an understanding of the language and style of the era in which they were published, which can be markedly different from what we’re accustomed to in today’s media.  Understanding historical newspapers goes beyond the literal interpretation of the words. It requires diving into the societal and cultural context that shaped the narratives. Different periods had different norms, influencing how events were reported, what language was used, and even what topics were considered newsworthy. As students navigate these waters, they start to comprehend the newspapers as a reflection of their times – not just carriers of news, but cultural and historical snapshots that embody the era’s zeitgeist.

Research using The Community History Archives

This understanding doesn’t only aid in deciphering the text but also brings the past alive. It allows students to transcend the confines of the present, to understand the mindset of people in different eras, and to see the world through their eyes. Consequently, the process of integrating historical newspapers into education transforms from a potentially confusing task into an enlightening journey, engaging students in an immersive historical experience and providing them with a richer, more nuanced understanding of the past.

Language is a living entity, continually evolving and adapting. Consider something as commonplace as the pair of ‘pants’ we wear today. In the mid-19th century, a gentleman would have buttoned on his ‘breeches’, a term that later gave way to ‘trousers’ as the language evolved. By the 1930s, ‘slacks’ entered the vernacular, borrowed from the military term ‘slack trousers.’ Similarly, automobiles, once called ‘horseless carriages’, transformed into ‘motor cars’ and then simply ‘cars’. Such shifts are not only an intriguing linguistic journey but also a way to perceive the world from a historical perspective.

Words that were common in the 19th century might be rarely used today, or their meanings might have evolved. For instance, In the 19th century, “awful” was commonly used to mean “awe-inspiring” or “full of awe.” It conveyed a sense of wonder or reverence. For instance, a newspaper article from that era might describe a scenic landscape as “awful in its grandeur.” However, in contemporary usage, “awful” has taken on a predominantly negative connotation, implying something unpleasant or terrible. This shift in meaning can lead to misinterpretation if readers are unaware of the historical context. Researchers relying on modern interpretations may misjudge the tone or intention of a newspaper article that uses “awful” in its original sense, missing the sense of admiration or reverence the author intended to convey. By understanding how language has changed, scholars can accurately grasp the author’s intended meaning and appreciate the nuances within the text.

Primary Source of Learning

Words such as “cad,” a term used in the 19th century to describe a dishonorable man, or “dandiprat”, a phrase describing a young person or insignificant man, have largely fallen out of use. Similarly, “fopdoodle”, an old term for a fool or simpleton is unlikely to be encountered in contemporary language usage (which is unfortunate because of how fun it is to say).

A student reading an article from a 1925 newspaper might be dumbfounded by a sentence that read: “The strapping young blade, full of pep and vinegar, headed to the hootenanny, ready to cut a rug and sweep the local tomato off her feet.” If we had the equivalent of “Google Translate” for historical newspaper articles, the sentence might be translated as: “The strong, energetic young man, full of vitality and enthusiasm, headed to the lively gathering, ready to dance impressively and win the heart of the local attractive young woman.”

But sadly, an “Old To New” translator doesn’t exist (yet)! If it did, students would know that “The old coot, having had one too many giggle waters, started to blather about the need for temperance and moral fortitude in this calamitous season” really meant: “The elderly man, after having too many alcoholic drinks, started to talk excessively about the need for moderation and moral strength during these challenging times.” This language originates from the Prohibition era in the United States, specifically the 1920s. Terms like “old coot” for an elderly man, “giggle water” for alcohol, and the emphasis on temperance and moral fortitude are indicative of the societal attitudes and vernacular of this period.

A Lab doing Research in The Community History Archives

Some time ago, I ran across an article from the early 19th century in the Quincy, IL archive, and I remember thinking, “Is this even English?”: 

Local Happenings: Sarah Jane, the filly, known by folks for her keen noodle, bested her classmates in the spelling match, flabbergasting the town’s swells, who thought such scholarly pursuits were beyond her ken. These same high hats and their dames left the gymnasium in a trice upon news of the Cross rolling in. The bigwigs, the townsfolk, lollygaggers, and alike, gathered at the new depot, eager to see the new contraption that promised to change the world.”

It took me a few minutes to get the gist of it, and after looking through a few pages before and after the article, along with a little research, I was finally able to piece it together and learned a little more than I expected.

The article was written in 1838, and the language in these sentences is marked by significant societal and technological change. The use of terms such as ‘filly’, ‘noodle’, ‘swells’, ‘ken’, ‘lollygaggers’, and ‘bigwigs’ are indicative of colloquialisms popular during this period. Understanding the meaning and context of these terms is critical in interpreting historical newspaper reports and other primary source documents from this era. Once I had the reference for these words, I had a richer, more nuanced perspective of that community’s past, allowing me to see beyond the surface of the text and into the societal norms, attitudes, and transformations of the time. Those few sentences told a story of significance:

From what I could gather, a young girl named Sarah, likely poor or underprivileged, won a school spelling bee held in a local gym. Most people in town recognized Sarah as being very smart, but her victory surprised many of the town’s upper-class citizens, who believed such academic endeavors to be unusual for someone of her social status. The audience for the spelling bee left abruptly when the news spread that a train was pulling into town and would be stopping at the newly constructed train station, which was completed earlier that year. The Northern Cross (the “Cross”) was the first railroad in Illinois and one of the earliest railroads in the United States. This railroad connected Meredosia on the Illinois River to Springfield and further west to Quincy on the Mississippi River. Its completion made a significant impact on the development and growth of Quincy and the entire region. Understandably, this was a big deal and the reason the gym cleared out so quickly, as no one in town had likely seen a train before. It was something that united both the common citizens and the influential elites, and they all gathered at the railroad station together, their eagerness palpable as they awaited their first glimpse of the innovative machine set to revolutionize their world.

A lady using The Community History Archives to do Research

Understanding these shifts in vocabulary can greatly enhance a student’s comprehension of historical newspaper articles. Colloquialisms and Idioms serve as linguistic expressions that encapsulate cultural nuances and historical contexts. They can add color and richness to language but can also present challenges for student researchers examining old newspapers. Idioms are phrases where the overall meaning goes beyond the literal interpretation of the individual words used. Instead, their meaning is culturally understood and may not be directly related to the words themselves.

Consider the idiom “the cat’s pajamas,” which gained popularity in the 1920s. This phrase refers to something or someone outstanding, excellent, or highly regarded. However, the meaning of this idiom is not immediately apparent to contemporary readers who are unfamiliar with its historical context. The phrase originated in the 1920s during the Jazz Age and is often associated with the flapper culture of that era. It was a playful and colloquial way to describe something as being top-notch or highly regarded. The phrase itself may seem nonsensical if interpreted literally, as cats don’t typically wear pajamas (at least mine doesn’t). However, in the context of the 1920s, the idiom gained popularity as a slang term used to describe something that was considered fashionable, stylish, or remarkable. It reflected the spirit of the time, which embraced novelty, excitement, and a departure from traditional norms. “The cat’s pajamas” became part of the vibrant slang vocabulary of the 1920s, alongside other expressions like “the bee’s knees,” “the cat’s whiskers,” or “the monkey’s uncle.” These idiomatic phrases were used to convey enthusiasm, admiration, or to highlight something as exceptional or trendy. Without understanding the specific cultural reference, researchers may struggle to decipher the intended message and overlook the significance or impact of the phrase in the context of the time.



Idioms are deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of their era. They reflect the attitudes, values, and shared experiences of a particular community or time period. Over time, idiomatic expressions can fall out of use or be replaced by new phrases, making them even more challenging for modern readers to understand without proper context. When researching old newspapers, encountering idioms that are no longer commonly used can pose a barrier to comprehension. Failure to grasp the meaning of these idiomatic expressions can lead to misinterpretation or a limited understanding of the author’s intended message. Consequently, researchers may miss out on the cultural insights, humor, or figurative language conveyed by these idioms. To overcome this barrier, it is essential for students and educators alike to familiarize themselves with the idiomatic expressions commonly used during the period they are studying. By consulting historical references, literature, and language resources specific to the era, researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the idioms employed in historical newspapers. Contextual clues within the newspaper article itself, such as surrounding text or recurring idiomatic patterns, can also provide valuable insights into the intended meaning.

Students do however need to be mindful that historical records are not only full of unique vocabulary terms, they are often colored by inherent biases. They echo societal norms, attitudes, and cultural context of their era, subtly influencing our perception of the past. Bias, although often seen in a negative light, is inescapable and not necessarily detrimental. Understanding and identifying bias in historical records can provide a multi-faceted view of history, leading to richer and more nuanced understandings.

A person studying and doing research using the Community History Archives Platform that was developed by Advantage Archives.

My next post in this series will explore bias in historical newspapers and how educators can help students to identify underlying biases and perspectives, and how this critical thinking can be extended beyond the history classroom. Remember, understanding our past is key to navigating our future, and understanding bias helps us to appreciate the complexity and diversity of perspectives that make up our shared history.


Or to put it another way, in the next chinwag in this series, I’m gonna spill the beans and dish the dirt about the malarky printed in blatts by those old ink-slingers and news hounds reporting the happenings, and how you schoolmarms and pedagogues can help the young sprouts pinpoint the under-the-table angles and the backstreet messages that are as hidden as a hooch in a speakeasy. It’s not just about history class, this type of noodle work will come in handy no matter what the apples and eggs find themselves doing in the future.  Remember, getting a handle on our yesteryears is as important to steering our tomorrows. Dusting off those hidden tilts helps us get a wiggle on to appreciate the real cat’s meow mix of outlooks in our olden times.

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