An anachronism, from the Greek ανά (ana: up, against, back, re-) and χρόνος (chronos: time), is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain.
The intentional use of older, often obsolete cultural artifacts may be regarded as anachronistic. For example, it could be considered anachronistic for a modern-day person to wear a top hat, write with a quill, or carry on a conversation in Latin. Such choices may reflect an eccentricity, or an aesthetic preference.
A parachronism (from the Greek "παρά," "on the side," and "χρόνος," "time") is anything that appears in a (time period) in which it is not normally found (though not sufficiently out of place as to be impossible). This may be an object, an idiomatic expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else sufficiently closely bound to a particular time period as to seem strange when encountered in a later era. They may be objects or ideas which were once common, but are now considered rare or inappropriate. They can take the form of obsolete technology or outdated fashion. Examples of parachronisms could include a suburban housewife in the United States around 1960 using a washboard for laundry (well after washing machines had become the norm); or a teenager from that time period being an avid fan of ragtime music. Often, parachronism is identified 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. Many scientific works that rely on theories that have later been discredited have become anachronistic with the removal of those underpinnings, and works of speculative fiction often find their speculations outstripped by real-world technological developments or scientific discoveries.
This differs from a prochronism, in which the object or idea has not yet been invented when the situation takes place, and therefore could not have possibly existed at the time. A prochronism occurs when an item appears in a temporal context in which it could not yet be present (the object had not yet been developed, the verbal expression had not been coined, the philosophy had not been formulated, the breed of animal had not been developed, the technology had not been created). An example is Western movies' placing in frontier society of antebellum or Civil War years firearms not introduced until the 1870s, such as the Winchester 1873 rifle or the Colt Single Action Army revolver. While prochronisms such as this may not be noticed by the uninformed, other prochronisms are intentionally comic (e.g., a 10th-century peasant earnestly explaining his village as an "anarcho-syndicalist commune" in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or a Beatlesque band called the "Bedbugs" appearing in the American Civil War era TV comedy F-Troop).
Politically motivated anachronism
Some writings and works of art promoting a political, nationalist or revolutionary cause use anachronism to depict an institution or custom as being more ancient than it actually is. For example, the 19th-century Romanian painter Constantin Lecca depictes the peace agreement between Ioan Bogdan Voievod and Radu Voievod—two leaders in Romania's 16th-century history—with the flags of Moldavia (blue-red) and of Wallachia (yellow-blue) seen in the background. These flags date only from the 1830s. Here anachronism promotes legitimacy for the unification of Moldavia and Wallachia into the Kingdom of Romania at the time the painting was made.
Anachronisms usually appear more technologically advanced than is expected for their place and period. An anachronism can be an artifact which appears out of place archaeologically, geologically, or temporally. It is sometimes called an "out-of-place artifact".
However, a seeming anachronism may reflect ignorance of history 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. Allegedly anachronistic artifacts demonstrate contradictions to this idea. Some archaeologists believe that seeing these artifacts as anachronisms underestimates the technology and creativity of people at the time.
Art and literature
Anachronism is used especially in works of imagination that rest on a historical basis. Anachronisms may be introduced in many ways: for example, in the 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 at 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 are not recorded as asking 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: Shakespeare portrayed Brutus, plotting to assassinate Caesar in 44 BC, being interrupted by the striking of the clock, although ancient Rome was the era of the sundial, with invention of the mechanical clock dating from the 11th-13th centuries AD. In "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Shakespeare casually bestowed upon Theseus—a semi-legendary character dated to the misty time of the Second Millennium BC—the title of "Duke of Athens", which derives from the Latin conquest the Byzantine Empire in the 13th Century AD.
Similarly, Henry Purcell wrote the opera "Dido and Aeneas", which is based on themes from Classical Antiquity and is set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War; yet, he provided Dido (Queen of Carthage) with a sister called "Belinda"—a name which is probably of Germanic origin and certainly did not exist before the Middle Ages.
Anachronism can also be detected in the social and political institutions depicted in many literary works. For example, the fully developed Code of Chivalry, which has a major role in the Arthurian tales, reflects the social conditions of the late Middle Ages when these tales were composed, rather than the conditions of 5th-century Britain when the historical King Arthur lived. Language too, can be anachronistic, as some passages in Book of Mormon appear to be written at a later date.
However, in many works, anachronisms are not simply the result of the artist's ignorance. 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 peoples in contemporary garb. These anachronisms reflect a difference of emphasis compared to 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, it was a secondary consideration that the events depicted took place far in the past. They took the view that many details required for historic realism would have been a distraction to the common viewer of their work.
Authors sometimes telescope chronology for the sake of making some point. Bolesław Prus (who was not a proponent of the historical novel), does this at several junctures in his 1895 novel, Pharaoh, set in Egypt of 1087–1085 BC, but which distorts history through the use of deliberate anachronism. For instance, the "Suez Canal" that was proposed by Prince Hiram, had already 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 the novel to the priest Menes), 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 led 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 type of stylistic anachronism is often used in children's movies, such as Shrek and Hoodwinked, for satirical effect.
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.
Comedy fiction set in the past may use anachronism for 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, frequent references to Hedy Lamarr (born in 1914), and a "Laurel and Hardy" handshake.
Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, set in 1694, shows pop art on the walls of the manor; in the uncut version, it showed a cordless telephone. The latter scene was removed for issues of audience comprehensibility.
The FX animated show Archer takes place in a deliberately anachronistic setting. While the visual style and several characters' involvement in past events such as WWI place the show roughly in the 1960s, there are also many explicitly modern details, such as the existence of the Internet as well as consistent references to pop culture of the 2010s. This is lampshaded in that, on the few occasions the current date is brought up, no one knows what year it actually is.
Even with careful research, science fiction writers risk anachronism as their works age because they cannot predict all political and technological change. For example, many books and films nominally set in the mid-21st century or later refer to the Soviet Union, defunct in 1991, or to Saint Petersburg in Russia as Leningrad, e.g., in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Such conflicts can be retconned by positing a return to the former state, a new Soviet Union emerging and the city's name changing back to Leningrad. In revisions of the book Ender's Game, all mentions of the Soviet Union were simply rewritten to reflect the change to Russia. Another example could be how the 1993 film Demolition Man, set in 2032, prominently features the Oldsmobile brand as part of a product placement deal with General Motors; GM subsequently quit building Oldsmobile branded vehicles in 2004.
Stories published before the invention of solid state electronics often depict characters in futuristic settings still using vacuum tube radios and slide rules. This is particularly noticeable in George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral stories, written between 1942 and 1945 but set in the mid-21st century, where radio communication using vacuum tubes, though more advanced than the ones at the 1940s, is a major plot subject. Also, the 1887 novel Looking Backwards, set in 2000, features a form of alarm clock/radio with vacuum tubes.
Clifford Simak's Time is the Simplest Thing (published in 1961) is set in the 22nd century, a time when cars are equipped with atomic engines and do not touch the ground, teleportation exists but is not available to the general public, and a means of travel to stars thousands of light years distant was created, but telephone calls go through manual telephone exchanges that have never been automated.
Conversely, some works assumed a more rapid rate of technological advance in the near future than actually happened, e.g., many of the works of Ray Bradbury depict futuristic families who rely on helicopters as a main mode of travel, which had not occurred by the date stated. The same is true for Heinlein's novel The Puppet Masters. Similarly, lunar colonies, Strong AI, and manned interplanetary spacecraft have not appeared by the titular date in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
H. Beam Piper's novels, largely set in the 27th-century "Atomic Era" (circa 2600) envision anti-gravity drives and super-luminal travel but still depict analog tape recording. Futuristic films, such as A Clockwork Orange, sometimes have anachronisms, e.g., in that film a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle is run off the road, and people listen to microcassettes and vinyl records in a film set deep in the late 20th century. The 1926 movie Metropolis depicting life a century later shows plentiful biplanes, which were obsolete roughly ten years later.
Similarly, William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy depicts a cyberpunk world of fantastically advanced technology in which personal mobile phones do not exist, characters rely extensively on pay phones or exotic satellite-based communication and 8 megabytes of RAM is a valuable commodity. (Mobile phones already existed at the time of the works, but they were big, clunky, and expensive; Gibson did not foresee their miniaturization and ubiquity.)
A more subtle example may be found in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II, where it is assumed that fax machines are ubiquitous in 2015, but e-mail is not. Shows like The Jetsons have similar examples, depicting 1960s Rock music as unacceptable to adults, and that media of any kind would still be recorded on tape. This is satirized in the Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law episode "Back to the Present".
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. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is an example; British TV's History Bites is another.
The television series Firefly'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.
Sometimes terms are intentionally used anachronistically, especially when referring to futuristic technology and the writers prefer to retain audience identification instead of creating a new term that would then have to be explained. The original Star Trek series also made reference to "computer tapes" although the storage media seen strongly resembled floppy disks, which had not yet been invented in the real world.
One work where nominal anachronisms are present 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 in the year before the World Wide Web was made popular. 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.
In Isaac Asimov's scifi novel End of Eternity, a disguised anachronism is discovered by the protagonist Andrew Harlan in a preserved 20th century advertisement from 1935 which read "All the/Talk/Of the/Market" along with a simple outline illustration of a mushroom cloud indicating an atomic explosion, the text message itself forming an anagram of the word "atom" with the first letter of each line. This enabled the protagonist, an Eternal Technician to locate Cooper, the future inventor of the "temporal field" who had been sent back to the wrong century.
Accidental and intentional
With the detail required for a modern historical narrative, it is easy to introduce anachronisms.
Inappropriate objects in a film or television program are common. 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. Difficult to notice on the small, low-resolution TV screens of the 1960s, they become much more obvious on the larger HDTV screens of the early 21st century. Actors and actresses (especially extras) might have such modern items as wristwatches and ballpoint pens that they are unwilling to set aside, whose outlines appear even if the objects themselves do not, underneath period costumes in films set in times in which such objects do not exist. Costumes themselves might go awry and expose modern underwear. Even dog breeds (the German shepherd, a very common dog in the middle of the 20th century and later, did not come into existence until 1899) may appear in the wrong time and constitute an anachronism. Outdoor sets for even a nineteenth-century film have included vapor trails from jet aircraft and tire tracks from motor vehicles that did not exist in the time depicted. These can be edited out of later video releases.
Sometimes movie anachronisms are intentional but appear accidental. An example is the musical score of The Sting. The ragtime piano music by Scott Joplin was composed in the 1890s and early 20th century, 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 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.
In the BBC science-fiction sitcom Red Dwarf, set on a 23rd-century spacecraft, Sony Trinitron monitors are seen throughout the ship and VHS and Betamax video cassettes are still in use. One of these unintentional anachronisms is used for comic effect in Red Dwarf: Back to Earth, when it was explained that DVDs were discontinued sometime in the late 21st century because "humans were utterly incapable of putting them back in the cases" and that "videos are too big to lose".
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. For example, many movies which are set post-2001 show the World Trade Center in New York City, such as Vanilla Sky. Especially with regard 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. In some cases, anachronisms cannot be helped, such as in the British television show Life on Mars (set in the 1970s), where it would require an excessive amount of work to remove today's outdoor amenities such as satellite dishes.
In the earliest Big Finish Doctor Who audio dramas featuring the Eighth Doctor there were deliberate anachronisms, such as in Invaders from Mars, where the CIA are depicted in 1938 despite not being formed till 1947. These were clues to the Web of Time breaking down due to Charlotte Pollard surviving.
Language anachronisms—archaisms—in novels and films are quite common. They can be intentional or unintentional. Intentional anachronisms let us understand more readily a film set in the past. Language and pronunciation change so fast that most modern people (even many scholars) would have difficulty understanding a film with dialogue in 17th-century English; thus, we willingly accept characters speaking an updated language. Similarly, modern slang and figures of speech are often used in these films. Although modern audiences want to understand George Washington when he speaks, however, if he starts talking about "the bottom line" (a figure of speech that did not come into popular use until almost two centuries after Washington's time), that can stretch credulity and distract the audience.
A character in Ancient Rome, for example, may use what many people will assume to be an ordinary figure of speech, but which a significant minority will be aware is actually a quote from Shakespeare, or the King James Bible, or even Lenin. For example, the Empress Livia referred to the "infantile disorder of republicanism" in the TV series I, Claudius.
At the most blatant, linguistic anachronisms can demonstrate the fraudulence of a document purportedly from an earlier time. The use of 19th- and 20th-century antisemitic terminology demonstrates that the purported "Franklin Prophecy" is a forgery, as Benjamin Franklin died in 1790.
Anachronism in academic writing is considered at best embarrassing, as in early-20th-century scholarship's use of Translatio imperii to interpret 10th-century literature, when it was first formulated in the 12th century. Genuine errors will usually be acknowledged in a subsequent erratum.
The use in a hyperbolic sense is more complex: to refer to the Holy Roman Empire as the First Reich, for example, is inaccurate but may be a useful comparative exercise; the application of theory to works which predate Marxist, Feminist or Freudian subjectivities is considered an essential part of theoretical practice. In most cases, however, the practitioner will acknowledge or justify the use or context.
- Antikythera mechanism
- Presentism (literary and historical analysis)
- Society for Creative Anachronism
- Invented traditions
- Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1, Line 192 - "Clock strikes" or Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 1 - "Clock strikes"
- "Who invented the clock?". Antique-collectable-clock.com. Retrieved 2013-02-01.
- Bolesław Prus; Pharaoh (translated from the Polish by Christopher Kasparek); Warsaw; Polestar Publications; and New York, Hippocrene Books; 2001; pp. 470-75 & pp. 543-47.
- "Anti-Semitic Myth: The Franklin "Prophecy"". Adl.org. Retrieved 2013-02-01.
- The dictionary definition of anachronism at Wiktionary
- To Doubt The Search: How Anachronisms Creep Into Academic Trend Studies
- Sins of a Historian. A study of anachronisms in intellectual history by Sami Syrjämäki.