Anachronism: Definition, Examples & Importance
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. Anachronism: What is it?
  2. How to spot an anachronism
  3. Examples of anachronism in literature
  4. Examples of anachronism in film and television
  5. Why anachronism matters in art and history

Have you ever spotted a wristwatch in a historical painting? Or noticed a modern slang in a medieval novel? If so, you've stumbled upon an anachronism. Understanding the definition of anachronism can enhance your appreciation of art, literature, and history. Let's get to know this concept better.

Anachronism: What is it?

Anachronism is a fascinating term that originates from the Greek words 'ana', meaning 'against', and 'chronos', meaning 'time'. In its simplest form, the definition of anachronism is something or someone that's out of its appropriate time.

The Basics of Anachronism

There are two main types of anachronism:

  • Prochronism: This is when an event, object, or person is placed in a time where it hadn't yet occurred or existed. Imagine reading a Victorian-era novel with a character using a smartphone—that's a prochronism.
  • Parachronism: This happens when an event, object, or person is presented as more advanced or modern than what was available at that time. An example would be seeing a caveman ride a bicycle in a cartoon.

Where Can You Find Anachronism?

Anachronisms are not just confined to history textbooks or art galleries. You can find them in various forms of media and entertainment:

  1. Literature: Authors may use anachronism either intentionally or unintentionally. It could be a modern phrase used in a story set in the past, or an old-fashioned object appearing in a contemporary setting.
  2. Films and TV shows: These are often rife with anachronisms, from costumes and sets to the technology shown.
  3. Art: Painters may include objects in their works that didn't exist during the period they're depicting.

Recognizing Anachronism

Recognizing anachronism can turn into a fun 'spot the error' game. The key is to be observant and have a basic knowledge of different historical periods. Look out for things that seem out of place—be it language, clothing, technology, or customs.

Why Do Anachronisms Happen?

Anachronisms can occur by accident, out of ignorance, or as a deliberate artistic choice. Sometimes, it's simply a case of oversight, like a historical movie showing a modern watch on an actor's wrist. Other times, creators use anachronism for comedic effect or to make a point. So, understanding the definition of anachronism isn't just about spotting errors—it can also help you appreciate the creator's intent.

How to spot an anachronism

Recognizing anachronisms can be a bit like playing detective — you're looking for things that don't quite belong. But how do you train your eye to spot these time inconsistencies? Let's walk through it.

Develop a Historical Sense

First things first, you need a basic understanding of different time periods. This doesn't mean you need to be a history buff, but being familiar with the general timeline of major inventions, trends, and events can be a huge help. For example, knowing that smartphones didn't exist in the 1980s can help you spot an anachronism in a movie set during that time.

Look at the Details

Anachronisms often lurk in the small details. This could be in the form of fashion, language, or technology. For instance, spotting a zipped dress in a film set in the 1800s would be an anachronism, as zippers weren't invented until the late 19th century.

Consider the Language

Language is an excellent indicator of time. Old English in a 20th-century novel or modern slang in a Shakespeare play would be clear anachronisms. So, the next time you're reading a book or watching a film, pay attention to the language used. Does it fit the time period?

Ask Questions

If something seems off or out of place, it might be an anachronism. Ask yourself if that object, phrase, or event could have existed at the time. Questioning is a great way to spot potential anachronisms.

Verify Your Suspicions

If you think you've spotted an anachronism, do a quick fact-check. A simple internet search can often confirm whether or not something is anachronistic. Remember, the definition of anachronism is tied to the accuracy of time, so it's all about checking facts.

Spotting anachronisms can be a fun way to engage with media and art. It not only tests your knowledge but can also give you a whole new appreciation for the attention to detail that goes into creating accurate historical depictions.

Examples of anachronism in literature

In literature, anachronisms often pop up, either intentionally or unintentionally. These time inconsistencies can add a unique flavor to the story or, in some cases, may be errors. Let's explore some examples.

Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar"

Shakespeare, the master playwright, wasn't immune to anachronisms. In his play "Julius Caesar," he mentions a clock striking three — but wait a second, mechanical clocks didn't exist during Caesar's time. That's a clear example of an accidental anachronism.

Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"

In this classic Mark Twain novel, the protagonist, a 19th-century engineer, travels back in time to the 6th century. He introduces modern technology and ideas into the Arthurian era. These anachronisms are intentional and serve as the backbone of the story's humor and satire.

Dante's "The Divine Comedy"

In Dante's "The Divine Comedy," the poet meets historical and mythological figures in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Considering these figures lived in different eras, their simultaneous presence in the afterlife is an intentional anachronism, adding to the epic's mystical nature.

George Orwell's "1984"

Written in 1949, Orwell's dystopian novel is set in the future — 1984. It predicted technological advancements that were not yet invented at the time of writing. Thus, "1984" is a good example of a speculative anachronism.

So, you see, the definition of anachronism isn't just limited to errors. It can be a deliberate tool used by authors to make a point, add humor, or play with the concept of time. Interesting, isn't it?

Examples of anachronism in film and television

Just like in literature, anachronisms make frequent appearances in film and television. They can be both intentional, to add a unique twist, or unintentional — a result of oversight or lack of historical knowledge. Let's dive into a few examples.

"Forrest Gump"

Remember the scene in "Forrest Gump" where Forrest shows his buttocks to President Lyndon B. Johnson? The event supposedly took place in 1967, but the footage used is from a 1963 newscast. Oops, that's an anachronism!

"Pulp Fiction"

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" features a dance scene set in a 1950s-themed restaurant. However, the song they dance to, Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," wasn't released until 1964. A small, but definite anachronism.

"Back to the Future"

In this iconic film, 1980s teenager Marty McFly travels back to the 1950s. His knowledge of future events and technology make for plenty of intentional anachronisms, underscoring the film's comedic and fantastical elements.

"Downton Abbey"

While the creators of "Downton Abbey" tried to accurately portray early 20th century England, they occasionally slipped up. For example, one scene shows a TV aerial on a house — something not common until the 1950s.

Whether they're intentional or not, these anachronisms can sometimes add a dash of intrigue or humor to a film or television show. They might even get you wondering about the definition of anachronism in a whole new way. Isn't that part of the fun of watching?

Why anachronism matters in art and history

So, you've seen some examples and you understand the definition of anachronism, but you may still wonder—why does it matter? Well, in art and history, anachronism serves crucial roles. Let's break them down:

Accurate Representation

Firstly, avoiding anachronisms is critical in maintaining historical accuracy. For historians, anachronisms can distort the true representation of a historical period. Say, you're reading a book set in the 18th century, and suddenly a character pulls out a smartphone. That would surely make you question the credibility of the narrative, wouldn't it?

Artistic Expression

On the other hand, in art, anachronisms can be deliberately used to create a unique aesthetic or to convey a particular message. Ever seen a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's play with characters in contemporary clothing? That's an artistic use of anachronism!

Comic Relief

Anachronism can also be used to inject humor into a piece of work. Imagine a caveman eating a burger or a Roman soldier checking his wristwatch. These intentional anachronisms can give us a good chuckle!

In conclusion, understanding the definition of anachronism helps us appreciate the careful balance artists and historians must strike between maintaining accuracy and allowing for creative freedom. It's a tool, a pitfall, and a source of amusement, all rolled into one.

If you're fascinated by the concept of anachronism and want to explore how it can be incorporated into your creative work, check out the workshop 'Authenticity & Creativity Intertwined' by Rachael Mangal. This workshop will help you understand the connection between authenticity and creativity, and how anachronism can play a role in making your work unique and compelling.