Analysis Pages

Vocabulary in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Vocabulary Examples in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:

Preface by the Author

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"presumptuous..."   (Preface by the Author)

The adjective “presumptuous” describes someone as unduly confident or bold, arrogant, or forward. Jacobs uses it here to let readers to know that she is telling this story because it needs to be told and not because she personally wants the attention that will come with it.

"sufficient food..."   (Chapter I)

Many slave women had to act as wet nurses for their white mistresses’ infants. (Wet nurses are responsible for breastfeeding infants.) Many slave women had children of their own but were expected to nurse their mistresses’ infants first, leaving little food for their own children.

"dower ..."   (Chapter I)

The noun “dower” is the portion of a deceased husband’s estate which his wife inherits. Jacobs uses it here to talk about the flow of money from master to mistress to establish that her grandmother’s mistress did in fact have money.

"mulattoes..."   (Chapter I)

The noun “mulatto” means a person’s having one black parent and one white parent, but more frequently it refers to anyone who has mixed ethnic heritage. “Mulatto” comes from the Spanish and Portuguese words for “mule,” a cross between a horse and a donkey. While “mulatto” was a commonly used term for someone with mixed heritage in the time Incidents was written, it is considered offensive and has fallen out of use today.

"executor..."   (Chapter II)

The noun “executor” means the person who is responsible for carrying out a purpose, design, action, or command. In this case, it refers to the person who executes the conditions of a will. Jacobs explains that Dr. Flint is the executor of his mother’s estate, further explaining the flow of money and power in the Flint family.

"linsey-woolsey dress..."   (Chapter II)

A linsey-woolsey dress is made from a mixture of wool and flax. Linsey-woolsey was an important fabric for colonial America because it was more widely available than pure wool. It was valued for its warmth and durability but not for its looks.

"impositions..."   (Chapter IV)

The noun “imposition” refers to the action of imposing or laying a burden, charge, or task on another. Here, Linda is talking about William and his dilemma with his master’s son. His master’s son was placing impositions on others and William had to decide whether or not he tell his master about it. This dilemma is telling of the oftentimes difficult decisions that slaves would face, being truthful and receiving punishment for it, or being deceitful and perhaps suffering punishment at a later time.

"sympathizing..."   (Chapter IV)

The adjective “sympathizing” means to share in grief, suffering, or to have an affinity with someone else. Linda here tells readers about how wonderful her grandmother was as well as her comfortable and welcoming home. Her use of “sympathizing” shows that her grandmother understood her and the struggles she faced. The relationship between Linda and her grandmother is one of the strongest and most important relationships in the text.

"epoch..."   (Chapter V)

The noun “epoch” means the beginning of a “new era” or a distinctive period of an individual’s life. Here Linda tells readers that her fifteenth year is a distinct period of sadness in her life. In this year, she suffers many injustices, specifically unwanted sexual advances from her master.

"the Inquisition..."   (Chapter VI)

The Inquisition of the early Middle Ages was a period of time in which the Roman Catholic Church established institutions to investigate heresy. “Heresy” is an opinion or doctrine that is maintained in opposition to the church. Anyone found guilty of heresy was fined, imprisoned, or put to death. There have been several Inquisitions in history, with the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century being one of the most infamous. Here, Linda compares the secrets that slaveholders kept to those secrets kept by heretics during the Inquisition.

"martyr..."   (Chapter VI)

A “martyr” refers to someone who chooses death over renouncing faith. While the word is often associated with Christian martyrs and death, Jacobs uses the general sense: someone who suffers for a cause. Linda’s mistress considers herself a martyr because her marriage suffers from her husband’s sexual advances on Linda. Linda is upset with her for such thoughts because she’s just shared a personal secret and her mistress has made it entirely about herself.

"peeled and pickled..."   (Chapter VII)

The phrase “peeled and pickled” refers to whipping a slave and then washing the open wounds with salt water: peeled refers to the literal peeling of a slave’s skin as the whipping breaks it open; pickled refers to the salt water, a brine used to pickle something.

"abolitionists..."   (Chapter VIII)

The noun “abolitionist” refers to someone who advocates for an immediate end to a particular practice or institution. In Jacobs’s time, abolitionists demanded an immediate end to the slave trade and the emancipation of all African slaves. The abolitionist movement greatly developed in the 1830s, following the Second Great Awakening. White folks and freed slaves worked together to convince Americans of the sins they were committing as long as slavery was kept intact. The abolitionist movement continued until 1870 when the right to vote was extended to African American men.

"Yankees..."   (Chapter VIII)

The noun “Yankee” serves as a nickname or term for inhabitants of New England, the northern States, or even for Americans in general. The term was widely used during the Civil War by Confederate soldiers against the soldiers of the Federal army, serving as a derogatory nickname for anyone who lived in the North.

"Hindoos..."   (Chapter VIII)

The noun “hindoo” is an archaic spelling of the noun that refers to those who adhere to the Hindu religion. Jacobs uses it pejoratively here, implying that Hindus are less enlightened than Christians.

"heathen..."   (Chapter VIII)

The adjective “heathen” describes those who hold religious beliefs considered unenlightened, specifically those not of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faiths. In this case, Jacobs is talking about slaves who haven’t experienced the enlightening powers of the self. They have yet to awaken to the fact that their freedom is more valuable than their life in slavery.

"vitiated..."   (Chapter IX)

The adjective “vitiated” describes those who have been rendered corrupt, spoiled, or impaired, particularly in their morals. By including “of course” in this statement, Jacobs asserts the claim that slavery is a continuous cycle: The morally corrupt master teaches his sons what he knows, and they in turn teach their sons the same, perpetuating the cycle of violence.

"cotton gin..."   (Chapter IX)

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. It was used to separate cotton fibers from the seeds. Prior to its creation, slaves had to manually separate the fibers from the seeds, which was difficult, slow work. The pods that contain the cotton were sharp and often cut hands. The cotton gin proved useful and valuable; the production of cotton increased, which called for an increased number of slaves to plant and harvest the cotton.

"prostrate..."   (Chapter IX)

The adjective “prostrate” describes someone in a state of physical exhaustion or complete weakness, usually lying facedown on the ground. Jacobs refers here to the man found lying at the gate who was severely beaten by his master.

"freshet..."   (Chapter IX)

The noun “freshet” refers to a flood or the overflowing of a river caused by heavy rain. Here, Jacobs says that the flooding of a river once carried a plantation owner’s wine cellar and meat house far from his plantation.

"wormwood..."   (Chapter XI)

The noun “wormwood” refers to the plant Artemisia Absinthium, which is known for its distinct, bitter taste. Figuratively, “wormwood” refers to something that is bitter and egregious to the soul. Here, Linda questions whether Dr. Flint could have given her a worse ultimatum, one that hurts her soul more.

"theology..."   (Chapter XIII)

The noun “theology” refers to the study of all things divine. In this context theology was used to further reinforce the idea that religion justifies slavery.

"Methodist shout..."   (Chapter XIII)

A “Methodist shout” refers to the church service at Methodist churches. These services were lively and active, with attendees shouting out responses to the preacher. This service offers a direct opposition to the image of the Catholic service in which silent attendees received a message from the preacher.

"to pitch coppers..."   (Chapter XIII)

The phrase “to pitch coppers” refers to a gambling game played with pennies. Here it is referenced to show that many slaves had gambling habits that led them to shirk the duties given by their masters.

"grog..."   (Chapter XIII)

The noun “grog” refers to an alcoholic drink consisting of rum and water. Here it is used to imply that slave men were all alcoholics who sold their masters’ goods in order to buy something to drink.

"hand-mill..."   (Chapter XVI)

The noun “hand-mill” refers to a hand-operated machine, usually made of stone, used for grinding corn. Here Jacobs reveals that slaves had to grind their own food in the morning before going to the fields to work all day.

"poultice..."   (Chapter XVIII)

The noun “poultice” refers to a bundle of healing or protective substances that is applied directly to a wound in order to promote healing. Here, Linda applies a poultice of vinegar and ashes to her snake bite to lessen the swelling.

"interstices..."   (Chapter XXI)

The noun “interstices” refers to the small spaces between things, such as narrow openings or crevices. Here she refers to the spaces between the holes she drilled in the boards of her hiding spot. These holes offer the only bit of fresh air for Linda during her confinement in the rafters of her grandmother’s house.

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