What Is Anachronism? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  May 31, 2024 4 min read
An anachronism is a person, thing, or event that is placed in a historical time where it does not belong. For example, a knight wearing a wristwatch in a movie set in the medieval era would be an anachronism. Αnachronisms can happen by mistake or be used intentionally to convey a message or add humor to a story.

Anachronism example
In the movie Braveheart, characters, including William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson), are shown wearing kilts, which is historically inaccurate for the time period portrayed in the film. However, the anachronistic use of kilts serves a cinematic purpose, as kilts have become symbolic of Scottish identity.

Anachronisms can be found in books, paintings, movies, and other creative works.

What is anachronism?

An anachronism is a chronological inconsistency that occurs when objects, language, or people from different historical periods are mixed together. Anachronisms can manifest in various forms:

  • Objects misplaced in time (e.g., a pair of sneakers in an eighteenth century period drama).
  • Characters using language from a different era (e.g., using modern slang in a movie set in ancient Rome).
  • Technology or practices shown in a time period they did not yet exist in or would have become outdated in (e.g., teenagers using a rotary phone instead of smartphones in 2023).
In literature and art, creators may deliberately use anachronisms as an artistic choice. Sometimes anachronisms can be accidental (i.e., due to oversight in historical representation).

Why anachronism matters

Anachronism matters because it can impact the authenticity and atmosphere of a story. Using modern objects like disposable coffee cups in fantasy, for instance, can distract the audience and pull them out of the story. Anachronism can also affect stories set in our world by ruining the atmosphere and credibility (e.g., through attitudes that are out of sync with the depicted time period).

On the other hand, historical accuracy might not be a priority in a particular story. Writers may deliberately choose to create an alternate version of the past; for example, they may choose not to replicate racist or sexist attitudes so as not to endorse them. In other cases, they may want to make historical content more relatable to contemporary audiences.

In short, anachronism can be a sign of creative freedom or a pitfall. Because it affects storytelling, understanding when it’s intentional and when it’s a mistake is important.

What are different types of anachronism

Anachronisms come in various types:

  • Parachronism is when something is shown in a later time period than one would expect. It may be an unlikely or unusual inconsistency rather than an impossible one. For example, a character using a quill today is not entirely unlikely, but it would look peculiar.
  • Prochronism is when something is shown earlier than it actually existed, making its existence in the setting impossible—for instance, depicting someone scrolling through their smartphone at a time before smartphones were invented.
  • Behavioral or cultural anachronism can refer to anachronistic behaviors or cultural customs in general (e.g., modern behavior in an ancient setting) or to when people purposefully behave or dress according to norms of the past. Steampunk aesthetic, for example, blends together modern and industrial era elements, like wearing a corset or a monocle.
  • Politically motivated anachronism involves the intentional blurring of distinctions between past and present or making something seem older than it really is, and it is often used in art and literature supporting political causes.

Anachronism examples

Movies often use anachronisms on purpose to link the past with the present.

Anachronism example in a movie
The film Marie Antoinette, a loose retelling of the life of the infamous French queen, incorporates several anachronistic elements.

In one shot, we see a young Marie Antoinette in her room with a pair of sneakers in the background. This anachronism is deliberate—director Sofia Coppola wanted to portray her protagonist as a naive teenager who had never known a different world than the opulent one in which she lived. The sneakers help illustrate her teenage outlook and innocence.

The comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen incorporates intentional anachronisms as part of its storytelling and world-building.

Anachronism example in comics
The story takes place in an alternate version of the Victorian age mixed with futuristic and speculative elements. The League itself consists of popular nineteenth century literary characters (like Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.) who unite to protect Victorian England from threats that go beyond the constraints of the actual historical period.

These threats often involve advanced technology, supernatural forces, or otherworldly elements. The series as a whole features advanced technology with a retro look, like airships and sophisticated steam-powered machinery, that did not exist in the actual Victorian era.

All these anachronistic elements create a unique aesthetic known as retrofuturism or steampunk.

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Frequently asked questions about anachronism

What is an example of anachronism in literature?

An example of anachronism in literature is in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar

In Act 2, Scene 1, Brutus says, “Peace! Count the clock.” Cassius responds, “The clock hath stricken three.” In 44 BC, when Julius Caesar was alive, mechanical clocks were not yet invented, so mentioning a clock in the play is an anachronism because it didn't exist at that time.

What is a parachronism?

A parachronism is when something is shown in a later time period than one would expect. It may be an unlikely or unusual inconsistency rather than an impossible one. For example, a character using a quill today is not entirely unlikely, but it would look peculiar.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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