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What is an Anachronism?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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An anachronism is something that occurs out of its proper time. The chronological error of an anachronism can occur in either direction: it can result from something from the past being represented as if it belonged in the present, like an archaism, or it can result from presenting something at a time before it actually appeared, occurred, or existed.

Accidental anachronism can be a source of embarrassment. Some people make a hobby of finding all kinds of mistakes in movies, and ahistorical information – both errors of fact and anachronisms – are categories people search for. For example, a rabbi reports in a review on Amazon that the use of a Yiddish accent in the movie The Ten Commandments (1956) is anachronistic because Yiddish did not develop until the Middle Ages.

The use of planned anachronism can be a source of creativity and humor. In theatre, an anachronistic setting can bring out new or different elements of a play. This is a frequent practice: with, for example, Sophocles’ play Antigone being presented in Australia in 1996 with a production that set the action in Sarajevo, and Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night being presented in London in 2004 with the action moved to a setting in India.

Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is one of a number of books that use time travel as a way to explore the humor and ingenuity that can accompany anachronism. In this satire, Twain’s hero, Hank, is a 19th century New Englander who wakes up in sixth century England in the court of King Arthur. Caught in a time and place before his birth, he still has his knowledge of 13 centuries of as-yet-unlived history to draw on as he tries to make his way in society. Anachronism in fictional settings is also used in film spoofs, for example Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Shrek (2001).

The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international organization, promotes continued knowledge and understanding of pre-17th century Europe through research, re-creation, and reenactment. Through purposeful study of the past, the SCA aims to provide insight into three main areas: combat and chivalry, arts and sciences, and heraldry. Their reenactments — purposeful displays of anachronism — center on combat, competition, and equestrian exhibitions, as well as symposiums, fairs, and seasonal or holiday celebrations.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By dfoster85 — On Apr 15, 2012

Anachronism in literature and movies seems to be really common--without it, I think we would often simply find it too hard to relate to stories set in the past. In medieval Europe, relationships between parents and children, for instance, were drastically different--even wealthy parents expected many of their children to die in childhood and would send them away to be fostered for several years. But movies set in this time period tend to display a parent-child relationship more like what we are familiar with today.

By anon128792 — On Nov 20, 2010

geekzspot says: for an example, see the movie Wall-E. The scene in the spaceship in 2775 when there are complaints about losing a (audio) signal in a tunnel. Which is a problem solved at the beginning of the 21st century

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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