The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Antediluvian’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

What does the word ‘antediluvian’ mean, and what are its origins? To discover the answers to these questions, we have to travel back to the Old Testament, and to one of the most famous stories found in the Book of Genesis.

In the Book of Genesis, we are told that God, or Yahweh as he is known in the Old Testament, looked down on the human race and saw wickedness, violence, and evil everywhere (Genesis 6:5). He decided to destroy all living things on the earth, except for Noah, who had ‘found grace in the eyes of the LORD’ (Genesis 6:8).

God instructed Noah to build an Ark (an odd word which here means ‘ship’ but does not carry this meaning anywhere else in classical literature) and to take ‘two of every sort’ of animal into the ark (though other verses contradict this and call for seven of certain types of animal), so that whilst the other animals would be wiped out, each species would be preserved through these two (or seven) specimens.

When the rains came and the world was flooded, Noah and his wife, sons, and their wives, along with the animals he had taken aboard the ark, were spared the Flood and survived. But every living thing outside of the ark was destroyed in the waters of the Flood.

When the waters receded, Noah sent a raven out of the ark to search for dry land, and then a dove. The dove returned, so Noah waited a week and then sent it out again. This happened several times before the dove eventually returned.

The account of the Flood appears early in the Book of Genesis, and is thus one of the earliest events recorded in the Bible’s version of human history and the history of the world. ‘Antediluvian’ comes from two Latin words: the prefix ante- which means ‘before’ (as in ‘antenatal’ classes which take place before childbirth; ‘AM’, as in ‘9am’, stands for ante meridiem, meaning ‘before midday’) and the Latin diluvium, which means ‘deluge’ or ‘flood’.

The word ‘antediluvian’ relates, then, to the period before the Flood described in the Biblical book of Genesis. Sometimes, however – as the OED notes in its definition of the word – ‘antediluvian’ is also used to refer to a time before another of the ancient floods mentioned in other mythological texts from classical antiquity. But what are these other mythological texts?

Well, the Biblical account of the Flood, in the Book of Genesis, is similar to even older accounts of a Great Flood, dating from the time of the Babylonian empire, over a millennium before the Book of Genesis was probably first assembled. These texts include the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem which predates Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the earliest Old Testament accounts, by more than a millennium.

It’s even possible that, despite the difference in time periods, the Flood recorded in the Gilgamesh story and the Flood from the Book of Genesis are fictionalised versions of a real event which took place in the Middle East thousands of years ago, the memory of which was preserved through first oral and then written accounts.

Specifically, a Black Sea Deluge some 7,500 years ago has been proposed as one candidate for the Great Flood. Is this where the story of the Flood originated? If so, the word ‘antediluvian’ really does take us back a long time in the history of civilisation.

The word ‘antediluvian’ first appears in print in the seventeenth century, when the great polymath and word-coiner Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) used it in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which was published in 1646, although it was so popular it went through many more editions during Browne’s lifetime.

The full title of this book is Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, although it is sometimes known simply as Vulgar Errors. Its purpose was to examine the widely held superstitions and beliefs of the time, and to correct those which were false. In order to do this, and in the empirical spirit popularised by Sir Francis Bacon earlier in the century, Browne conducted his own experiments wherever possible. In this work, he refers to ‘the antediluvian Chronology’: in other words, things which took place before the Flood.

Indeed, Browne is credited with coining, or being one of the first to use, a whole host of now familiar words: additionally, ambidextrous, approximate, biped, bisect, botanical, capillary, carnivorous, coexistence, coma, compensate, complicated, continuum, convulse, cryptography, cylindrical, cynicism, depreciate, discrimination, disruption, dissemination, electricity, elevator, executive, factitious, ferocious, follicle, gypsum, hallucination, illustrative, inactivity, incisor, indigenous, insecurity, invariably, locomotion, praying mantis, medical, narwhal, non-existence, ossuary, parturition, patois, perspire, prairie, precipitous, precocious, prefix, presumably, protrusion, secretion, selection, subsidence, temperamental, transferable, transgressive, and ulterior. He also provides one of the earliest uses of the word ‘computer’ (though not, as has sometimes been claimed, the very first).

But although ‘antediluvian’ literally means ‘before the flood’, it has come to have other connotations. By the early eighteenth century, it was being used to refer to long extinct animals and plants: prehistoric ‘things’ which have been wiped out. And by 1728, it was being used in ‘hyperbolical’ manner (as the OED describes it) to refer to things or methods which are very antiquated or ridiculously old-fashioned.