How I Almost Didn’t Obsess About the Word “Baggage”

About a year ago, although it seems longer ago now, I installed Webster’s 1913 Unabridged Dictionary as an alternate dictionary on my Mac. James Somers gave a few compelling reasons to use this particular dictionary and outlined very detailed instructions for installing it on different platforms. (Sorry, Windows users.)

The great thing about the Dictionary app on a Mac is that you can simultaneously look up several different dictionaries and reference works to get a better “feel” for a particular word.

Take, for example, the word baggage. As I prepared for an upcoming trip, I was searching for a synonym for “baggage,” as in what one carries while traveling.

The default, contemporary dictionary defines the word as

personal belongings packed in suitcases for traveling; luggage.
past experiences or long-held ideas regarded as burdens and impediments: the emotional baggage I’m hauling around | the party jettisoned its traditional ideological baggage.

Those two correspond to the way I more-or-less hear and read the word. “It’s best to meet arriving passengers outside of baggage claim,” and “my last relationship left me with a lot of emotional baggage” are examples of those two usages.

But in 1913, the word had many, many more meanings

The clothes, tents, utensils, and provisions of an army.
The trunks, valises, satchels, etc., which a traveler carries with him on a journey; luggage.
Purulent matter. [Obs.] –Barrough.
Trashy talk. [Obs.] –Ascham.
A man of bad character. [Obs.] –Holland.
A woman of loose morals; a prostitute.
A romping, saucy girl. [Playful] –Goldsmith.

Wow! What a crazy word. The first two definitions survive, referring to articles and the bags used to carry them. The third, purulent matter, refers to pus, meaning that “baggage” once meant something excreting pus. Yuck!

The last four definitions apparently refer to something a bit more… colorful. Trashy talk? Men and women of ill-repute? And, a playful, romping, saucy girl? Are you kidding me? Those Victorians really had a word for everything!

Conspicuously absent from this list, however, is the meaning referring to “past experiences and ideas” that “burden” us. My guess is that anything like that, back then, was simply repressed and went unacknowledged.

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