An “anachronism” arises when something is presented out of its proper time, for example, a hearing-aid in a movie about the Crusades or a black woman in a series about Arthur when there were no blacks in England at that time.
Such out-of-time occurrences aren’t as rare as you might suppose. We regularly encounter anachronisms in books, movies, and television.
Modern works aside, the most famous anachronism we know of belongs to Shakespeare, In Act II, Scene i, of Julius Caesar, Romans plotting Caesar’s assassination, hold a planning meeting.
Trebonius says, “There is no fear in him; let him not die;/For he will
Live and laugh at this hereafter.” (Clock strikes.)
Brutus: “Peace! Count the clock.”
Cassius: “The clock hath stricken three.”
What is anachronistic about this passage? Well, Julius Caesar lived from about 101 BC until 44 BC. What we call a “clock” wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages. Caesar would have learned the time via a “shadow clock” —a sun dial. Sun dials don’t strike the hours.
Shakespeare does it again in Troilus and Cressida (1601). This play about the Greek/Trojan War is set in the early eighth-century BC. Even so, one character, Hector, quotes Aristotle by name. Aristotle wasn’t born for another 400 years.
Shakespeare isn’t finished yet. Anachronisms can also be found in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.
I recently read, High Marks for Murder, by Rebecca Kent. Among this book’s many flaws are several anachronisms. The story takes place at the turn of the 20th century, yet a character speaks of going to the “powder room,” a term unknown until at least 10 years later. Characters in this inferior book also regularly attend the “cinema.” Cinema came into general usage only in 1910 and residents of small communities, like the one where this book is set, had no movie theatre to go to.
We might note that this particular usage illustrates two separate aspects of anachronism — the use of a word out of place for its time and also the suggestion of an activity not yet possible.
In the movie world, a well-known anachronism takes place in The Ten Commandments (1956), where one of the Pharaoh’s attendants wears sneakers.
An interesting yet seldom noted anachronism is found in the movie, Old Yeller (1957). Old Yeller is a dog — a golden Labrador retriever/mastiff cross. The problem is, no golden lab was bred until 1896 while the movie is set in the 1860s.
In Tombstone (1993), which chronicles events at the OK Corral in 1881, plastic water pails are used to fight a fire. Plastic, invented in 1862, wasn’t used in such household products until 1967.
Anachronisms even show up in what we call, “great art.” Leonardo da Vinci, who painted the famous Last Supper, depicts oranges on the supper table. While Christ’s last supper took place about AD 33, oranges, indigenous to China, were unknown in the Holy Land (or anywhere in Europe) until the 15th century.
Anachronism, known since 1646, is originally Greek, meaning “to match.” It entered English from the French anachromisme.