What Is an Anachronism?

The term anachronism comes from the Greek word anachronous, meaning “against time.” An anachronism is the placement of something that is out of proper chronological sequence in a painting, film, or literary work. For instance, if one were to depict a sixteenth-century person holding a Sharpie instead of a quill, that would be an anachronism. Likewise, having a character drive a corvette in a film setting right after World War II would be an anachronism since the first corvettes didn’t come out until 1953.

How Do You Identify Anachronism in Writing?

It can be difficult to spot an anachronism in literature, especially when a writer from another era is writing historical fiction. While we know that it would be anachronistic to have Roman soldiers using machine guns, are we aware of the date in which gun powder was invented? Moreover, while unintentional anachronisms are fun to spot, they don’t contribute much to the meaning of a literary work. Deliberate use of anachronism is usually the province of science fiction or other fantasy genres.

Examples of Anachronism

Anachronism Example 1. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius remarks that the “clock has stricken three.” Since there were no mechanical clocks in Caesar’s time, this reference is clearly anachronistic.

Anachronism Example 2. In the film Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s character sports a kilt. . . four centuries before they were invented.

Anachronism Example 3. In a scene from Glory, which is set during the Civil War, one of the extras holds up his arm to reveal a wristwatch.

Anachronism Example 4. In the film The Aviator, which depicts the life of Howard Hughes, Hughes orders 10 chocolate chip cookies even though they weren’t invented unti 1930.

Anachronism Example 5. The idea that medieval knights lived in big stone castles, featured in The Once and Future King,  is anachronistic, as all the building we associate with medieval England were built after the eleventh century.

Anachronism Example 6. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, ostensibly set in the Mycenaean Era, contain an anachronistic blend of elements from both the Classical and the Mycenaean periods.


(View all literary devices)