'The Scarlet Letter' Vocabulary

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, written in the mid-19th century, is a prime example of early American literature. The novel, which is set in 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony, was published at a time when American culture was first beginning to define itself. By focusing the narrative on America's earliest days, Hawthorne connects the developing culture with its national origin.

This is particularly of note in Hawthorne's word choice throughout the book, as he uses words that are contemporaneous to the era about which he writes. Use this list of Scarlet Letter vocabulary, and accompanying quotes, to learn more about the meaning and significance of these words.

01
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Alacrity

Definition: eager willingness or readiness

Example: "Nothing could exceed the vigilance and alacrity with which they proceeded to lock, and double-lock, and secure with tape and sealing-wax, all the avenues of the delinquent vessel."

02
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Beadle

Definition: a messenger of a court of law or another low-level official who is responsible for preserving order at civil functions

Example: "The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff. 'Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name,' cried he."

03
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Chirurgical

Definition: of, or relating to, surgery

Example: "Skillful men, of the medical and chirurgical, profession, were of rare occurrence in the colony."

04
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Contumely

Definition: humiliating or insulting language or treatment

Example: "Of an impulsive and passionate nature, she had fortified herself to encounter the stings and venomous stabs of public contumely, wreaking itself in every variety of insult."

05
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Foolscap

Definition: writing paper sized 8½ by 13½ inches

Example: "There were several foolscap sheets, containing many particulars respecting the life and conversation of one Hester Prynne."

06
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Galliard

Definition: spirited, lively

Example: "A landsman could hardly have worn this garb and shown this face, and worn and shown them both with such a galliard air, without undergoing stern question before a magistrate, and probably incurring a fine or imprisonment, or perhaps an exhibition in the stocks."

07
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Ignominy

Definition: public shame or disgrace

Example: "Thus we seem to see that, as regarded Hester Prynne, the whole seven years of outlaw and ignominy had been little other than a preparation for this very hour."

08
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Indubitably

Definition: unquestionable, impossible to doubt

Example: "But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn."

09
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Lucubrication

Definition: pedantic literary writings; narrow-minded scholarly works that adhere to certain arbitrary rules and forms

Example: "Now it was, that the lucubrations of my ancient predecessor, Mr. Surveyor Pue, came into play."

10
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Magistrate

Definition: a civil officer or judge who deals with minor offenses

Example: "No longer ago than yestereve, a magistrate, a wise and godly man, was discoursing of your affairs, Mistress Hester, and whispered me that there had been question concerning you in the council."

11
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Mountebank

Definition: a person who deceives others, especially in order to trick them out of their money; a charlatan

Example: "I feared the woman had no better thought than to make a mountebank of her child!"

12
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Peradventure

Definition: perhaps

Example: "Peradventure the guilty one stands looking on at this sad spectacle, unknown of man, and forgetting that God sees him.”

13
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Phantasmagoric

Definition: dreamlike or fantastical in appearance

Example: "Possibly, it was an instinctive device of her spirit, to relieve itself, by the exhibition of these phantasmagoric forms, from the cruel weight and hardness of the reality."

14
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Pillory

Definition: wooden device with openings for the hands and the head, used to confine minor offenders and display them for public scorn and ridicule

Example: "It was, in short, the platform of the pillory; and above it rose the framework of that instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze."

15
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Portico

Definition: a colonnade or covered ambulatory at the entrance of a building

Example: "Its front is ornamented with a portico of half a dozen wooden pillars, supporting a balcony, beneath which a flight of wide granite steps descends towards the street."

16
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Prolix

Definition: unnecessarily prolonged or drawn out; too many words

Example: "This, in fact—a desire to put myself in my true position as editor, or very little more, of the most prolix among the tales that make up my volume."

17
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Sagaciously

Definition: in a manner that shows keen perception or sound judgment

Example: "Sagaciously, under their spectacles, did they peep into the holds of vessels!"

18
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Slovenly

Definition: lazy, slipshod, or untidy in appearance

Example: "The room itself is cobwebbed, and dingy with old paint; its floor is strewn with gray sand, in a fashion that has elsewhere fallen into long disuse; and it is easy to conclude, from the general slovenliness of the place, that this is a sanctuary into which womankind, with her tools of magic, the broom and mop, has very infrequent access."

19
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Sumptuary

Definition: relating to or denoting laws that limit private expenditure on food and personal items

Example: "Deep ruffs, painfully wrought bands, and gorgeously embroidered gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins of power; and were readily allowed to individuals dignified by rank or wealth, even while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar extravagances to the plebeian order."

20
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Vicissitude

Definition: the change in moods, styles, or affairs that affect people and institution

Example: "The independent position of the Collector had kept the Salem Custom-House out of the whirlpool of political vicissitude."

21
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Vivacity

Definition: liveliness

Example: "Such were some of the thoughts that now stirred in Hester’s mind, with as much vivacity of impression as if they had actually been whispered into her ear."

22
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Vivify

Definition: enliven or animate; bring to life

Example: "She would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion."