AskDefine | Define anachronism

Dictionary Definition



1 something located at a time when it could not have existed or occurred [syn: mistiming, misdating]
2 an artifact that belongs to another time
3 a person who seems to be displaced in time; who belongs to another age

User Contributed Dictionary



From anachronismus < < (referring to the wrong time) < (up against) + (spending time) < (time).


  • /əˈnækɹəˌnɪzm̩/


  1. A chronological mistake; the erroneous dating of an event, circumstance etc.
  2. A person or thing which seems to belong to a different time.
    • 1956: His movements, his clothes, everything about him, seemed slightly out of place in this assembly. He spoiled the pattern; like Alvin, he was an anachronism. — Arthur C. Clarke, The City and the Stars, p 32


chronological mistake
person or thing which seems to belong to a different time
  • Croatian: anakronizam
  • Finnish: anakronismi
Translations to be checked

Extensive Definition

An anachronism (from the Greek "ανά", "against", and "χρόνος", "time") is anything that is temporally incongruous in the time period it has been placed in—that is, it appears in a temporal context in which it seems sufficiently out of place as to be peculiar, incomprehensible or impossible. The item is often an object, but may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else closely enough bound to a particular period as to seem odd outside it.


An anachronist prefers older, often obsolete cultural artifacts over newer ones. For example, a modern-day anachronist might choose to wear a top-hat, use quill pens, or use a type-writer. This choice may reflect an eccentricity, aesthetic preference, or an ethical acceptance or rejection of the societal role of that artifact.
Another sort of parachronism arises when a work based on a particular era's state of knowledge is read within the context of a later era with a different state of knowledge. For example, many scientific works that rely heavily on theories that have later been discredited have become anachronistic with the removal of their underpinnings, and works of speculative fiction often find their speculation quickly outstripped by real-world technological development. (see Future anachronism below)
A prochronism, on the other hand, occurs when an item appears in a temporal context in which it could not yet be credibly present (the object had not yet been developed, the verbal expression had not been coined, the philosophy had not yet been formulated, the breed (especially of dogs or livestock) had not been bred, the technology had not yet been created). A mild example might be Western movies' tradition of placing firearms not introduced until the 1870s, such as the Winchester 1873 rifle or the Colt Single Action Army, in frontier society of antebellum and Civil War years. Mild prochronisms such as this may not be noticeable to the uninformed, but severe prochronisms are often comic in their effect (e.g., a tenth-century British peasant earnestly explaining his village as an anarcho-syndicalist commune in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or a Beatlesque band called the "Bedbugs" appearing in the American Civil War–era TV comedy F-Troop).


An anachronism can be an artifact which appears out of place archaeologically, geologically or temporally. It is sometimes called OOPArt, for "out of place artifact". Anachronisms usually appear more technologically advanced than is expected for their place and period.
However, an apparent anachronism may reflect our ignorance rather than a genuine chronological anomaly. A popular view of history presents an unfolding of the past in which humanity has a primitive start and progresses toward development of technology. Alleged anachronistic artifacts demonstrate contradictions to this idea. Some archaeologists believe that seeing these artifacts as anachronisms underestimates the technology and creativity available to people at the time, although others believe that these are evidence of alternate or "fringe" timelines of human history (e.g. Antikythera mechanism).
If one envisions human technological advancement as being roughly parallel to the expansion and decline of human civilizations — that is, progressing in a "three steps forward, two steps back" sort of manner — then at least some (perhaps even many) apparent "anachronisms" are to be expected. A good example of this would be concrete, being used in the past by various ancient cultures only to be forgotten about and then re-invented at a later time by another culture, until the present, at which point the technology is employed globally and unlikely to slip into obscurity again without major upheaval.

Art and fiction

Anachronism is used especially in works of imagination that rest on a historical basis. Anachronisms may be introduced in many ways, originating, for instance, in disregard of the different modes of life and thought that characterize different periods, or in ignorance of the progress of the arts and sciences and other facts of history. They vary from glaring inconsistencies to scarcely perceptible misrepresentation. It is only since the close of the 18th century that this kind of deviation from historical reality has jarred on a general audience. Anachronisms abound in the works of Raphael and Shakespeare, as well as in those of less celebrated painters and playwrights of earlier times.
In particular, the artists, on the stage and on the canvas, in story and in song, assimilated their characters to their own nationality and their own time. Roman soldiers appear in Renaissance military garb. The Virgin Mary was represented in Italian works with Italian characteristics, and in Flemish works with Flemish ones. Alexander the Great appeared on the French stage in the full costume of Louis XIV of France down to the time of Voltaire; and in England the contemporaries of Joseph Addison found unremarkable (in Pope's words)
"Cato's long wig, flower'd gown, and lacquer'd chair."
Shakespeare's audience similarly did not ask whether the University of Wittenberg had existed in Hamlet's day, or whether clocks that struck time were available in Julius Caesar's ancient Rome.
However, in many works, such anachronisms are not simply the result of ignorance, which would have been corrected had the artist simply had more historical knowledge. Renaissance painters, for example, were well aware of the differences in costume between ancient times and their own, given the renewed attention to ancient art in their time, but they often chose to depict ancient scenes in contemporary garb. Rather, these anachronisms reflect a difference of emphasis from the 19th and 20th century attention to depicting details of former times as they "actually" were. Artists and writers of earlier times were usually more concerned with other aspects of the composition, and the fact that the events depicted took place long in the past was secondary. Such a large number of differences of detail required by historic realism would have been a distraction. (see Accidental and intentional anachronism below)
Authors sometimes telescope chronology for the sake of making a point. Bolesław Prus does this at several junctures in his 1895 historical novel, Pharaoh, set in the Egypt of 1087–1085 B.C.E. The ancient "Suez Canal," proposed by Prince Hiram (chapter 55), had existed in ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom, centuries before the period of the novel. Conversely, the remarkably accurate calculation of the earth's circumference by Eratosthenes, and the invention of a steam engine by Heron, both ascribed in chapter 60 to the priest Menes, had historically occurred in Alexandrian Egypt, centuries after the period of the novel.
In recent times, the progress of archaeological research and the more scientific spirit of history have encouraged audiences and artists to view anachronism as an offense or mistake.
Yet modern dramatic productions often rely on anachronism for effect. In particular, directors of Shakespeare's plays may use costumes and props not only of Shakespeare's day or their own, but of any era in between or even those of an imagined future. For instance, the musical Return to the Forbidden Planet crosses The Tempest with popular music to create a science fiction musical.
A celebrated 1960 stage production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton, was set on a bare New York stage in contemporary rehearsal clothes: the audience could have been watching the rehearsal before the dress rehearsal. The point of the staging was apparently that the story of Hamlet is a universal one that was equally credible in the 20th century as in the 17th.
Other popular adaptations of Shakespeare's plays that relied on anachronisms in props and setting were Titus (1999) and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996). A similar approach was used in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, in which a diverse selection of 20th-century music is used over a fin de siècle backdrop. Other films, such as Brazil, A Series of Unfortunate Events, or Richard III may create worlds so full of various conflicting anachronisms as to create a unique stylistic environment that lacks a specific period setting. This use of stylistic anachronism also often appears in children's movies, such as Shrek and Hoodwinked, where it is used for satirical effect. (see Comical anachronism below)
Sometimes a director may use anachronisms to offer a "fresh" angle on an already established story. Thus Andrew Lloyd Webber created two popular musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which filled traditional biblical stories with modern-day sensibilities; and on a similar note, Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story shows a field of maize-corn in a Nazareth farming scene. Maize-corn is native to Mesoamerica; until the late 15th century it was grown only in the Americas.

Comical anachronism

Comedic works of fiction set in the past may use anachronism for a humorous effect. One of the first major films to use anachronism was Buster Keaton's The Three Ages, which included the invention of Stone Age baseball and modern traffic problems in classical Rome. Mel Brooks' 1974 film Blazing Saddles, set in the Wild West in 1874, contains many blatant anachronisms from the 1970s, including a stylish Gucci costume for the sheriff, an automobile, a scene at Grauman's Chinese Theater, and frequent references to Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000). The cartoon The Flintstones depicts many modern appliances in a prehistoric setting—and depicts a dinosaur as a household pet, even though the last dinosaur died 65 million years ago, and the earliest humans date to 7 million years ago; the Stone Age is usually dated between 1,000,000 and 5,000 years ago. The Disney movie Aladdin, in particular, featured many brief jokes where the Genie briefly changed into caricatures of many famous people from all across time, including many twentieth-century figures and comedians, for the purpose of quoting lines to make jokes at the film. Series 3 of The Micallef Program included a sketch by the name of 'Billy Anachronism' in which a janitor was sent back to multiple time periods before returning to the 1970s with several items of clothing depicting the places he had been. In The Boondocks episode The Story of Catcher Freeman an example of the use of anachronism is the mention of Batman by one of the slaves, as Batman was created in 1939.

Future anachronism

Anachronisms in stories set in the future can be either unintentional or intentional.


Even with careful research, science fiction writers risk anachronism as their works age. For example, many books nominally set in the mid-21st century or later depict the continued existence of the Soviet Union, defunct in 1991, or that the city in northwestern Russia is still known as Leningrad, as appears in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Stories published before the invention of solid-state electronics often depict characters in futuristic settings still using vacuum tube radios and slide rules. H. Beam Piper's novels, largely set in the 7th century "Atomic Era" (circa 2600 A.D.) envision anti-gravity drives and super-luminal travel, but still depict analog tape-based recording. Futuristic films, such as A Clockwork Orange, sometimes have anachronisms, such as the fact that in that film a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle is run off the road, and listening to microcassettes in a film set deep in the late 20th century. (Similarly, in the 1982 anime series Super Dimension Fortress Macross, set in the year 2009, '80s style pop music is still favored and LP records are still widely available.) This can happen another way as well: William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy depicts a cyberpunk world of fantastically advanced technology in which personal mobile phones do not exist and characters rely extensively on pay phones or exotic satellite-based communication. (Mobile phones already existed at the time of the works, but they were big, clunky, and expensive; and Gibson did not foresee their miniaturization and ubiquity.) A more subtle example may be found in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, where it is assumed that fax machines are ubiquitous as of 2015 instead of email. Shows like The Jetsons also tend to have a number of them, like visiphones (which never officially came to be), or that 1960s style rock music would still be unacceptable to adults, or that media of any kind would still be recorded on tape.
One work where anachronisms are "annoying" but not fatal to credibility is David Brin's 1990 novel Earth. Brin foresees the ubiquity of the computer networks (but not the term Internet), but he was writing the year before the World Wide Web was introduced. He therefore refers to documents that are readily available to computer users but called by clumsy numeric identifiers, rather than URLs. He also imagines that personal video recorders, like camcorders, would influence civil liberties by making it possible for ordinary citizens to film crimes committed by police, as well as by hooligans. He does not foresee the ways in which both still photographs and video can be transmitted, making it possible for amateur reporters to cover breaking news stories and get their stories televised.


Anachronisms are sometimes intentionally used in stories about the future. This can function to make the story seem comical or help a contemporary audience to relate to a story set in the future. Firefly (TV series)'s vision of a pioneer culture dominant in the outer regions of the galaxy mirrors the mid-West pioneer culture of 19th century United States. This can be seen as an anachronism, but one which helps an audience to identify with characters and even see the story as allegory, as the creator wanted the story to follow people who had fought on the losing side of a war and their experiences afterwards as pioneers and immigrants on the outskirts of civilization, much like the post-American Civil War era of Reconstruction and the American Old West culture. Also, floppy disks are used in the Futurama TV series (set in the 31st century), even though such disks are already obsolete. (However, Futurama began airing in 1999, long after floppies were obsolete in real-time; such an anachronism is obviously intentional.)

Accidental and intentional

With the detail required for a modern historical movie it is easy to introduce anachronisms. The 1995 hit film Apollo 13 contains numerous errors, including the use of the incorrect NASA logo and the appearance of The Beatles' Let It Be album a month before it was actually released. Another example is the film Grounding, about the collapse of the airline Swissair. The film is set in September 2001, yet computers are shown using Windows XP, released a month later, and some VW Phaetons are being used, which were released a year later. Many movies about World War II depict CPR being performed, despite the fact that cardiopulmonary resuscitation was more widely described and popularized in the late 1950s.
Cinematic anachronisms that result from inappropriate objects in a film or television program are commonplace even if they are unintentional. Often these are faults of costume, especially for a television series filmed with a low budget. Thus episodes of a 1960s series relating to the frontiersman Daniel Boone have been shown with 20th-century hairdos and clothing with plastic buttons. At times some modern actor unwilling to put aside a prized wristwatch during a filming of an epic of ancient times is shown with the bulge of the wristwatch under a toga even if the watch or its band is not partially exposed.
A number of accidental anachronisms occur in Franc Roddam's 1979 film Quadrophenia. Based on Pete Townshend and The Who's 1973 double album about a troubled London teenager trying to fit into the hedonistic early 1960s Mod scene, the film is widely believed to be set in 1964, as it depicts the Mods v Rockers seaside battle on Brighton beach and shows Jimmy's newspaper cuttings of similar battles at Hastings and Margate that same year. The numerous mirrors, lamps and chromed frames adorning Jimmy's Lambretta scooter also suggest 1964 rather than the stripped-down scooters of later years. However, 1970's car models are seen in street scenes, such as the Austin Allegro. At a house party, the sleeve of Who LP A Quick One is on the top of the record player, yet it was not released until the end of 1966. Also, in a scene on Brighton promenade, a cinema is advertising the film Heaven Can Wait which was made over a decade later than Quadrophenia's setting. Further, while Jimmy is watching an episode of Ready Steady Go! on TV in 1964 (a pop-music programme aired 1963-66), The Who appear, singing Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, a song not released until May 1965.
Sometimes movie anachronisms are intentional, while appearing accidental. An example is the musical score of The Sting. The ragtime piano music by Scott Joplin was composed in the 1890s and 1900s, while the setting of the movie was the 1930s Great Depression. Although Joplin's music is not contemporary with the 1930s, its use in The Sting evokes a 1930s gangster film, The Public Enemy, which had also used Scott Joplin theme music. The presence of Joplin's music might give the impression that the movie's backdrop and music are from the same period or, conversely, be mistaken as an unintentional anachronism by viewers unaware of the allusion to the earlier film.
Technical advances can also cause anachronisms, especially in movies set in the future. Numerous examples of this can be seen in the 1995 film Harrison Bergeron, set in 2051. Throughout the film, numerous analog CRT television sets are visible, along with other anachronisms, such as the analog nature and hardware-level programming of handicapping headbands. (One would expect the headbands to be programmable using a computer, as opposed to adjusting by hand.)
Anachronisms can show up when filming on location, since buildings or natural features may be present that would not have been at the time the film was set (think of movies that have already been filmed, that are set in the future and contain footage of the World Trade Center in New York, such as Vanilla Sky), or may be missing in the film while they existed at the time the movie was set. Another example is the Coen brothers movie "No Country For Old Men", in which a modern-day "Carl's Jr." is visible in the background of the hotel scene, set in early 1980's Texas, there would not have been a Carl's Jr. there, let alone one with current markings.
In the case of films made in the past but set in the future, a building or feature may be seen that is known to no longer exist. Especially with regards to historical items and vehicles, anachronisms can stem from convenience, for example a historically accurate item might be replaced with a later but fairly similar item, especially if a historically accurate item cannot be sourced. In the case of replicas, signs of modern construction techniques may be visible. In some cases, though, due to technological entrenchment, anachronisms cannot be helped, such as in the British television show Life on Mars (set in the 1970s), where removing present-day public amenities like park benches and satellite dishes in outdoor scenes would be impossible or absurd.
There are directors who have made valiant and generally successful efforts to recreate the past. For example, Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies have scenes set in New York City in the first two decades of the 20th century. In the 1970s, Coppola took over several blocks in Manhattan, covering storefronts with period replicas, replacing streetlamps, and keeping inhabitants from their homes and businesses for weeks at a time. It would have been much easier to use a Hollywood backlot, as was done in the Back to the Future trilogy where Courthouse Square was used to represent downtown Hill Valley in various time periods. However, there would have been visible differences; so his team (and the local inhabitants) went to unprecedented lengths for realism. (He explains his methods in detail in the Bonus Materials DVD of the Godfather DVD Collection boxed set.)
Many computerized adventure games featuring characters solving puzzles that are set at a given historical date often have brazen technological anachronisms. The reason for this is that mechanisms, such as instant-message pagers and GPS devices from which one's coordinates on the globe can be instantly read out, are useful devices for gameplay, and the players could be expected to have knowledge of them, so that an equivalent based on antiquated media can be hypothesized. The backdrop and style of the items are considered just a sort of "local color".

Language anachronism

Language anachronisms in films are quite common. They can be intentional or unintentional. Intentional anachronisms let us understand more readily a film set in the past. Language changes so fast that most modern people (even many scholars) would not easily be able to understand a film set anywhere in the English-speaking world of the 18th century; thus, we willingly accept characters speaking an updated language. Unintentional anachronisms include putting modern slang and figures of speech into the mouths of characters from the past. Modern audiences want to understand George Washington when he speaks, but if he starts talking about "the bottom line" (a figure of speech that did not come into popular language until almost two centuries after Washington's time), that is an unintentional anachronism.
At the most blatant, linguistic anachronisms can demonstrate the fraudulence of a document purportedly from an earlier time. The use of terminology from 19th Century and 20th Century antisemites demonstrates that the so-called Franklin Prophecy is a forgery, as Benjamin Franklin died in 1790.


Other possible anachronisms include:
  • References to places that did not exist at the time of the story. Amsterdam, Prague, Munich and Madrid might be large cities today, but in a story set in Imperial Rome, references to any of them would be anachronisms because those cities were not founded until after the Roman Empire had been toppled. Similarly, a dispatch from Chicago during the American Revolution would be impossible because the city was not founded until 1833.
  • Juxtapositions of people who could not have ever met, for example Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. The anachronism could include people of the wrong age; for example a physical meeting between Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, the latter as an adult, would be inappropriate because Albert Einstein died when Stephen Hawking was twelve years old.
  • Affiliations and organizations from a later time. Barring time travel in a science-fiction setting, an FBI agent could never interrogate Jesse James for a bank robbery because the FBI did not come into existence before Jesse James died. Likewise, a Roman Catholic priest could not have given Last Rites to Julius Caesar or his assassins.
  • Objects and creatures geographically misplaced in time. Potatoes, tomatoes, and maize in any form or such a creature as a cougar anywhere in Europe before 1492 are anachronisms even if they were commonplace in North America and South America.
  • Indirect evidence of technologies then not in existence occasionally appears in film. Vapor trails from jet aircraft occasionally appear in films set long before the time of jet aircraft. Tracks from modern automobile or truck tires would be inappropriate at any time before about 1900. Aluminum objects, often objects of inexpensive trade in the latter part of the 20th century, would be prohibitively expensive for common commerce before the 20th century, and any objects made of plastics would not exist at all. An ATM receipt as trash picked up in 1965 (when automated teller machines did not exist) might not be as blatant as an ATM itself, but it would be evidence of cinematic carelessness.
  • Misplaced breeds of domesticated animals, such as a Golden Retriever at any time before the late 19th century.
Sometimes a lack of understanding of language differences can lead the reader to detect a false anachronism. For example, the Oxford World Classics translation of Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Civil War mentions the 'corn situation' in Rome. To North American ears this might sound anachronistic (since American corn or maize did not reach Europe until over 1,500 years after Caesar's death), but in British English the word corn is a synonym of the word grain and normally refers to wheat.


In academic writing, there is no place for deliberate anachronism, and here anachronism is regarded as an error of scholarly method. For example, we now know that the concept of Translatio imperii was first formulated in the 12th century. To use it to interpret 10th century literature, as early 20th century scholarship did, is anachronistic, an error which (once we see it) is obvious as such. Other examples are less obvious: to refer to the Holy Roman Empire as "the First Reich" is to view medieval history through National Socialist glasses and as such is anachronistic. However, the boundaries are often difficult to draw. Some would suggest that Marxist, feminist, or Freudian approaches to literature written before these philosophies were developed are necessarily anachronistic; others argue that modern insights on the human condition are applicable to all times and cultures.
A common example is the critique of ancient science by Carl Sagan:
"Writings about fossils, gems, earthquakes, and volcanoes date back to the Greeks, more than 2300 years ago. Certainly, the most influential Greek philosopher was Aristotle. Unfortunately, Aristotle's explanations of the natural world were not derived from keen observations and experiments, as in modern science. Instead, they were arbitrary pronouncements based on the limited knowledge of his day."
Indeed, Aristotle stated many things in conflict with both modern science and the findings of pre-Socratic philosophers like Democritus, as Carl Sagan observed in Episode 7 of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and in Chapter 7 of the book Cosmos.



External links

anachronism in Arabic: مفارقة تاريخية
anachronism in Czech: Anachronismus
anachronism in Danish: Anakronisme
anachronism in German: Anachronismus
anachronism in Estonian: Anakronism
anachronism in Spanish: Anacronismo
anachronism in French: Anachronisme
anachronism in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Anachronismo
anachronism in Italian: Anacronismo
anachronism in Hebrew: אנכרוניזם
anachronism in Kazakh: Анахронизм
anachronism in Dutch: Anachronisme
anachronism in Norwegian: Anakronisme
anachronism in Polish: Anachronizm
anachronism in Portuguese: Anacronismo
anachronism in Russian: Анахронизм
anachronism in Serbian: Анахронизам
anachronism in Finnish: Anakronismi
anachronism in Swedish: Anakronism
anachronism in Turkish: Anakronizm
anachronism in Ukrainian: Анахронізм

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