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In modern terms an anachronism is what's known as a "mis-fit" today. An anachronism is an object, event, custom or person that is paried with the incorrect time period.

Defining the term

An anachronism is a thing which belongs to or is appropriate for a time period other than the one it exists in; especially used when referring to something that is obviously old-fashioned. Anachronism is also the act of attributing an object, event, or custom to a time period to which it doesn’t belong. Anachronism’s first known use was in the mid-17th century, and it is derived from the Greek anakhronismos; ana meaning “backward” and khronos meaning “time.” Anachronism can be used as a literary device in prose or poetry. Its literal meaning is “against time.” Anachronisms are also present in paintings and other works of art.

Examples of anachronism

Anachronism can create a literary impact to draw readers’ attention to a particular idea. An anachronism can also be the result of faulty research or errors. An example is chronological inconsistency in a piece of writing or art. The intentional addition of anachronism could be used to further the plot of a time travel novel, or to add creative effect to a poem or piece of art

In John Keats’ poem Ode to a Grecian Urn, the poet uses anachronism through words like “thee” and “thou,” which are from an earlier time than 1820 when the poem was written. Keats may have desired the poem to sound like an older poem.

Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persisence of Memory is a good example of anachronism, as the melting clocks strewn across a landscape devoid of people, buildings, or animals, indicate that it occurs either out of time or in a time period in the distant past or future.

Usage in popular literature

There are numerous examples of anachronism in William Shakespeare’s plays, many of which are historical. Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth all contain anachronisms.

Anachronism can appear in literary or other works of art accidentally or on purpose. If its use is an accident, it may affect the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a play or film. An example of an anachronism in a work of art might be a painting of a gentleman from the 1800s with an astronaut’s helmet on his head, or a spaceship in the sky behind a sketch of dinosaurs.

In Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, oranges are present. However, oranges were not existent in Europe until the 15th century BCE when Dutch sailors introduced them to the continent.

In Leonardo DiCaprio’s famous movie Titanic, the character Jack refers to ice-fishing on a man-made Wisconsin lake which was not created until five years after the Titanic sank into the ocean. 

The prison movie The Green Mile, based on a Stephen King short story by the same name, uses an electric chair, but they were not used in Louisiana in 1935.

Whether an anachronism is a mistake or used on purpose as a literary device, its effect can be jarring to the observer or reader. This is precisely the reaction an author or artist is looking for when employing this technique. Anachronisms may be glaringly obvious to some observers or readers, or more subtle.

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