Definition of Anachronism

An anachronism is something or someone that is not in the correct chronological time period. Anachronism examples can be intentional or unintentional, and involves the incorrect temporal placement of any person, event, object, custom, slang word, animal, or belief system which was not present at that time. The most common type of anachronism is to find something placed in an earlier time than it existed, such as having characters in the 18th century driving around in a car. However, it is also possible to find anachronisms in which the thing is placed later in time after it no longer existed, such as finding dinosaurs coexisting with humans in The Flintstones.

The word anachronism comes from Greek. The prefix ana- means “against,” while khronos means “time.” Thus, the definition of anachronism stems from this compound concept of going against time.

Common Examples of Anachronism

There are many examples of both intentional and unintentional anachronisms in television series, movies, advertising, and art. At times anachronisms can be used humorously, such as in the following examples:

  • The GEICO Caveman—GEICO’s tagline was “So easy, a caveman could do it,” which humorously was supposed to offend cavemen living in the modern world.
  • Austin Powers movies—Austin Powers is cryogenically frozen in the 1960s and comes back into the world decades later. There are many anachronisms that Austin Powers is unaware of, like his dated wardrobe and his penchant for saying “Groovy, baby.”
  • Midnight in Paris—An American writer named Gil who idolizes 1920s Paris travels back in time to that period and mingles with people such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and so on. He suggests to Luis Buñuel on of Buñuel’s ideas that he hasn’t yet come up with yet, and is able to travel back to the the future and dismiss false ideas about the meaning of a particular Picasso painting.

There are also many examples of anachronism that are unintentional, and thus not humorous. In general, this type of anachronism is a bit embarrassing. Here are some unintentional anachronism examples in movies:

  • Braveheart—Mel Gibson’s William Wallace wears a kilt, which seems representative of Scottish people to the modern viewer, but in fact kilts weren’t created until a few centuries after William Wallace died.
  • Titanic—Leonardo DiCaprio’s character refers to fishing in a lake in Wisconsin that was manmade and not created until after five years after the Titanic sank.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean—They make a reference to Singapore, even though the movie is set in the 1700s and Singapore wasn’t the name of a place until 1819.
  • The Green Mile—Prisoners on death row are executed by electric chair in Louisiana in 1935 in the movie, yet electric chairs weren’t in use in Louisiana until a few years later.
  • The Hurt Locker—A character says that an Iraqi man is filming something to put it on YouTube, but that website wasn’t created until a year after the scene is supposed to take place.

Significance of Anachronism in Literature

Anachronism has a few different functions in literature. Again, it can be used intentionally by some writers to comedic effect. It is more frequently found in literature in an unintentional manner, however. This often happens when an author writes historical fiction, which is based on real people who lived in a very different time and place. Authors can make mistakes when giving certain things to their characters from different eras, such as clothing choices, technology that did not yet exist, or even ideas, mannerisms, or language that was not popular at the time. The interesting aspect of anachronism in these cases is how it shows the author’s own assumptions and practices. The writer’s cultural bias can easily color how a character in a different period may have acted. For example, a 21st-century American writer trying to write about World War II will do so with the knowledge that the Nazis ultimately lost the war; however, of course, during that period it was not a foregone conclusion that the Allies would win. Thus, a contemporary writer might misattribute certain feelings to characters of that time period about what would happen.

While unintentional anachronisms are often considered mistakes, and sometimes display a carelessness or a lack of awareness, they can be interesting to study to understand the author better. The main problem they present, however, is that they can break the reader’s suspension of disbelief if the reader notices the mistake. If, for example, a character in ancient Egypt consults her watch, a reader would instantly be drawn out of the text and roll his eyes about such a careless wrong detail.

Examples of Anachronism in Literature

Example #1

Clock strikes
BRUTUS: Peace! Count the clock.
CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.
TREBONIUS: ‘Tis time to part.

(Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare wrote many histories that had their foundations in true stories from periods before Shakespeare lived. Though he tried to stick to the true stories as well as possible, he sometimes committed errors and included examples of anachronisms. In this excerpt from Julius Caesar, a clock strikes and the characters Brutus, Cassius, and Trebonius comment on the time. However, during Julius Caesar’s day, there were no mechanical clocks that would have been chiming the hour. Shakespeare also included another anachronism in the play later when he refers to Julius Caesar wearing a doublet. This is a case of cultural bias where Shakespeare was imagining the characters wearing clothing similar to that which he, Shakespeare, wore, and interacting with technology that Shakespeare was accustomed to but which hadn’t been invented yet.

Example #2

These big children, their fears gone, became so ravished with wonder over my awe-compelling fireworks that I had to stay there and smoke a couple of pipes out before they would let me go.

(A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain)

Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is an interesting example of anachronism that is intentional. The plot revolves around a man named Hank who time travels back to the time of King Arthur, around the 6th century AD. Hank comes from the 19th century and is able to convince the residents of King Arthur’s court that he is a magician because he possesses the ability to use technology that the characters have not encountered before. Thus, he manipulates the other characters in the story through anachronisms.

Example #3

Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war. For several months during his childhood there had been confused street fighting in London itself, some of which he remembered vividly. But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s novel 1984 occupies a space between intentional and unintentional anachronism. He was writing in the 1940s and imagining a futuristic dystopia in which there were only three superpower states that were all in a state of constant war. The protagonist, Winston, remembers his early childhood in London, which corresponds with the reality that Orwell was living through when he wrote the book. Then the superpowers form and remain at war, something that didn’t quite happen in the way that Orwell imagined. The interesting aspect of 1984, though, is how much of the novel is closer to reality than someone at the time might have thought. So, even though three powers called Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, are anachronistic in 1984 because they didn’t really exist, a modern reader could easily imagine links between what Orwell imagined and what has really happened.

Test Your Knowledge of Anachronism

1. Which of the following statements is the best anachronism definition?
A. An old thing that no longer exists.
B. A futuristic dystopia full of misinformation.
C. A person or thing which is placed in the wrong temporal period.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the following quote from William Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra:

Cleopatra. Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.
Attendants. The music, ho!
Cleopatra. Let it alone; let’s to billiards: come, Charmian.
Charmian. My arm is sore; best play with Mardian.

Which of the following things is an example of anachronism?
A. Music
B. Food
C. Billiards
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. Billiards is a game that wasn’t invented for many hundreds of years after Cleopatra’s death.[/spoiler]

3. Why might an author intentionally use anachronism examples?
A. For comedic purposes.
B. To share their own cultural biases with the world.
C. To confuse the audience.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]