Glossary: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

What follows is an incomplete (but growing) list of potentially confusing words used in Adam Smith’s great work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). This resource is curated by me, Prof Chris MacDonald, for my students, but will hopefully be useful to others as well. Note that the intention here is not to provide precise definitions, but to provide rough synonyms that will aid in reading and comprehension.

In some case, the words listed here are listed because they risk being seriously misleading for modern readers. When Smith uses the word genius, for example, he doesn’t mean exceptional intelligence — he just means intellectual capacity or talent. When Smith says someone wants something, he doesn’t mean they desire it, but rather that they lack it. And when Smith uses the word police, he’s not referring to a law enforcement agency, but to a set of policies or regulations in some jurisdiction. Knowing these these bits of vocabulary makes it much easier to understand this important work.

Other words listed here — words like abode, adulterated, and ascertain — are not likely to mislead, but are simply words that some readers may not be familiar with. (In some cases, such as the verb to let, Smith’s usage will be familiar to readers in the UK, but less so to readers in North America.)

Final note: this glossary is offered in the hopes that it will prove useful. No guarantees are offered. If you see something that looks like an error, please let me know by emailing me at .

What Smith says…Example of Smith’s usage…What Smith probably means, roughly…
1st, 2nd, etc. (followed by the name of a king of queen)“by the 1st of Elizabeth, the exportation of wheat was in the same manner prohibited”first statute (law) passed during the reign of that king or queen
abode (n.)“enter their names and places of abode in a public register”living
address (n.)“courage and address can be of no avail”skill, or manner of behaving
adulterated (adj.)“an adulterated composition of the coarsest and cheapest materials”mixed with something else, usually for fraudulent purposes
adventure (v.)Adventure upon all the tickets in the lottery”take a risk
affinity (n.)“so much affinity to one another”close relation
afford (v.)“this difference affords a greater profit than what can be drawn from”yield or produce
allodial (ad.)“rights possessed allodially by the great proprietors of land”without restrictions
anciently (adj)“The like policy anciently took place both in France and England.”formerly; previously; in old times
answer (v.)1. “must have answered completely the purpose for which it was intended”
2. “for answering occasional demands”
1. serve
2. satisfy
answerable (adj.)answerable for the whole rent”responsible
antecedent (adj.)antecedent to custom and education”before
apothecary (n.)“The skill of an apothecary is”one who prepares medicines; a pharmacist
art (n.)“with the assistance of a little arttechnology
artificer (n.)“the most common artificer or day-labourer”builder
ascertain (v.)“in many cases to have been intended to ascertaindetermine, or figure out
assize (n.)“method of fixing the assize of bread”a government order setting the price of something
assay (v.)“The operation of assaying is still more difficult”test the quality (of a metal)
avail (n.)“courage and address can be of no availuse, effect
avarice (n.)“the avarice and injustice of princes and sovereign states”greed
avoirdupois (n.)“contain half a pound, avoirdupois, of copper”referring to the standard 16-ounce pound
awful (adj.)“with the same awful solemnity”inspiring awe or reverence
barrenness (adj.)“the richness or barrenness of the mines which supply the market with that metal”lack of productivity
beau (n.)“to be a beau among his companions”stylish man
benevolence (n.)“it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only”good intentions
bill (n.)“may have purchased a bill for a greater number of ounces of pure silver to be paid in Holland”a piece of paper authorizing the payment of an amount of money.
brazier (n.)“becomes a smith or a braziersomeone whose job is to solder (join) things together with brass
brethren (n.)“Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethrenfellow man
burgher (n.)“bestowed upon the burghers of the town”citizen with the right to vote
buss (n.)“caught by the herring buss fishery of Scotland”small fishing vessel
bye-word (n.)“become a bye-word, denoting something”slang term
caprice (n.)“removed from his office according to the caprice of that power”whim
carriage (n.)“the expense of land-carriage between London and Calcutta”transportation, or shipping
clamour“the clamour and sophistry of merchants”outcry
clandestinely (adv.)“bribing their own poor to go clandestinely to another parish”secretly
coffer (n.)“keep at all times in their coffers a greater quantity of cash”a chest in which money is kept (literally or figuratively)
combination (n.)“Were the workmen to enter into a contrary combination of the same kind”collusion; a collective action to raise wages or prices
communicate (v.)“establishing the easiest and safest communications both by land and by water”to transport
computations“without entering into any very nice computationscalculations
conceit (n.)“The overweening conceit which the greater part of men”belief, idea
concert (n.)“acting in some sort of concertcooperation
confound (v.)“and thus confounds rent with profit”confuses, or conflates
connive (v.)“sometimes connived at such intrusions”to scheme
considerable (adj.)“to derive any considerable part of his revenue from them”great, noteworthy
contempt (n.)“rashness and presumptuous contempt of the risk”disregard
contemptuously (adv.)“how contemptuously soever the very contemptible authors of some of them may sometimes affect to speak of him”with contempt or scorn
contrivance (n.)“in some contrivance to raise prices”scheme
convey (v.)“immediately and directly conveys to him”bring
corporation (n.)“The exclusive privileges of corporationobstruct it from one place to another”guild, or professional association
creditable (n.)“The son of a creditable labourer”reputable
cruzado (n.)“we might value it at eighteen millions of cruzadoes”an old Portuguese coin
curate (n.)“the usual pay of a curate or a stipendiary parish priest”a priest, perhaps assistant to a parish priest
dear (adj.)“It appears to him dear in the one case, and cheap in the other”expensive
dearth (n.)“the history of the dearths and famines”scarcity
declension (n.)“rise with the prosperity and fall with the declension of the society”decline
dexterity (n.)“the greatest skill and dexterity in the use of their”expertise
diminution (n.)“When the diminution of revenue is the effect”reduction, lowering
discreditable (adj.)“this discreditable method of evading immediate payment”unethical
diversion (n.)“even for merriment and diversionentertainment
docility (n.)“the docility of the shepherd’s dog”ability to be taught things
dominion (n.)“In the ancient dominions of the King of Prussia”territory ruled by a sovereign
draper (n.)“in the hands of the growers, the manufacturers, the mercers and drapers”someone who deals in cloth
effectual (adj.)“naturally suits itself to the effectual demand”effective (or real, not hypothetical)
emoluments (n.)“and raise their emolumentsfinancial advantages
employ (v.)“both thought of and employed for this purpose”use
employment (n.)1. “In some employments, it has already been observed”
2. “the different employments of labour and stock”
1. business
entail (n.)“When great landed estates were a sort of principalities, entails might not be unreasonable”an estate that could only be transferred by inheritance, not sold
entice (v.)“should entice him to go to sea”lure, tempt
entreat (v.)entreat both the patience and attention of the reader”ask for
equipage (n.)“The elegance of his dress, of his equipage, of his house, and household furniture,”horse & carriage; minor personal possessions; trinkets
erection (n.)“fifteen years after the first erection of the banks”setting up (as in founding)
esteemed (adj.)“such singular and esteemed productions”highly regarded
estimation (n.)“in the common estimationopinion
exchequer (n.)“received at the exchequerpublic court where fees and taxes are paid
footing (n.)“upon the same footing with an ordinary workman”status
exigency (n.)“If upon any public exigency it should become necessary”significant need
fawn (v.)“endeavours by every servile and fawning attention”to flatter
frugal (adj.)“the credit of a frugal and thriving man”careful with money
garb (n.)“disguised in the garb of profit”exterior appearance, or clothing
genius (n.)“philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter”intellectual power or talent
gilding (n.)“the continual waste of them in gilding and plating”the use of a thin layer of a precious metal as decoration
gravitate (v.)“price, to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating”to move towards
grazier (n.)“separate so entirely the business of the grazier from that of the corn-farmer”farmer who raises livestock
gross (adj.)“people must always have been liable to the grossest frauds”serious
habitation (n.)“afforded a very comfortable habitationhome
hairbreadth (adj.)“The dangers and hairbreadth escapes”very narrow
hazard (v.)“the undertaker of the work who hazards his stock in this adventure”to put at risk
higgling (n.)“the higgling and bargaining of the market”use of many words in bargaining
homely (adj.)“the few homely and coarse manufactures that were carried on”not elegant
husbandry (n.)“the price of any instrument of husbandrycultivating (probably land, but perhaps also animals)
immediately (adj.)“paid either immediately or mediately from the wages of labour”directly
improvement (n.)“the superior opulence and improvement of the latter country”level of development
impute (adj.)“Mr. Locke imputed this high price to the permission of exporting”to attribute
indigence (n.)“the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”
Indostan (n.)“In China and Indostan accordingly both the rank and the wages”India
industry (n.)1. “a more extensive market is opened to every sort of industry
2. “diminish the produce of their industry
1. business

2. effort, hard work
inferior (adj.)1. “Men of inferior wealth combine to defend those of superior wealth”
2. “the industry and zeal of the inferior clergy”
1. lesser
2. lower-ranks
insolence (n.)“both the insolence of the oppressors and the hatred and indignation of the oppressed”haughty, overbearing attitude
kitchen-grate (n.)“the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals”stove
late (adj.)“A late Act of Parliament has, in this respect”recent
let (v.)“not only to their proprietor who lets them for a rent”to rent
liberality (n.)“reward their talents with the most profuse liberalitygenerosity
livre (n.)“The French livre contained in the time of Charlemagne”an old French unit of currency
loch (n.)“It is to these sea-lochs that the herrings principally resort during the seasons”a lake, or a lake-like inlet from the sea
maintenance (n.)“for the employment and maintenance of industrious people”provision of the necessities of life
mandamus (n.)“A mandamus was once moved”official government order
manufactory (n.)“a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed”place of manufacture; a factory
manufacture (n.)“in what manner it operates in some particular manufactures”industry
manufacturer (n.)“the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon”worker (especially one who makes things)
marine (n.)“The marine of France was considerable”seagoing capacity
maxim (n.)“It may be laid down as a maximrule or principle
meanest (adj.)“the tools of the meanest of those workmen”lowest (in rank or quality)
meanly (adv.)“have in several places been meanly supplied”ungenerously
mechanic (adj.)“There is scarce any common mechanic trade”manufacturing
mediately (adj.)“paid either immediately or mediately from the wages of labour”indirectly
menial servant (n.)“The labour of a menial servant”household servant
merchantable (adj.)“The price of a barrel of good merchantable herrings”suitable for sale
merk (n.)“after the middle of the fourteenth century, five merks, containing about as much silver”an old type of Scottish coin
merriment (n.)“even for merriment and diversion”fun
middling (adj.)“A middling farmer will there sometimes have four hundred fowls”of moderate range or middle quality
money (n.)“The whole capital of a merchant frequently consists in perish, able goods destined for purchasing moneycash (typically gold or silver coins)
Muscovia (n.)“the hundredweight of all spruce or Muscovia yarn”Moscow
neat (adj.)“It is this surplus only which is neat or clear profit.”net (in the financial sense)
necessaries (n.)“all the necessaries and conveniences of life”necessities
nice (adj.)“A house carpenter seems to exercise rather a nicer and more ingenious trade than a mason”accurate; delicate
nominal (adj.)“it may be of use to distinguish between real and nominal price”only in name; not real
occasion (n.)“the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for”need
occasion (v.)“than could have been occasioned by a very great public calamity”cause
odious (adj.)“The trade of a butcher is a brutal and an odious business”awful; hideous
offal (n.)“The little offals of their own table”food waste or garbage
offices (n.)“those mutual good offices which we stand in need of”services
opulence (n.)“the superior opulence and improvement of the latter country”wealth
ostentation (n.)“splendid even to ostentationflashiness or showiness
overseer (n.)“Common farmers seldom employ any overseermanager
overweening (n.)“The overweening conceit which the greater part of men”thinking too highly of something
peculiar (adj.)“the whole work is a peculiar trade”specific
pecuniary (adj.)“Though pecuniary wages and profit are…”pertaining to money
pension (n.)“the pensions of the younger branches of the royal family,”annual allowance
perspicuous (adj.)“in order to be sure that I am perspicuousclearly expressed
plate, plating (v.)“the continual waste of them in gilding and plating”coating with a precious metal
police (n.)“The police must be as violent as that of Indostan or ancient Egypt”policies or regulations
porter (n.)“between a philosopher and a common street portercourier
posterity (v.)“leave it as a legacy to his posteritydescendents
precedency (n.)“By the rules of precedencypriority, rank
preferment (n.)“they have scarce any chance of prefermentadvancement, promotion
prerogative (n.)“But this prerogative of the crown”right or entitlement
presumtuous (adj.)“the presumptuous hope of success”overconfident, arrogant
pretend (v.)pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining”to claim
primogeniture (n.)“the right of primogeniture, and of what is called lineal succession”the right of the first-born of a family to inherit the parents’ wealth
probity (n.)“their opinion of his fortune, probity, and prudence”honesty, uprightness
produce (n.)“usually the produce of two days’ or two hours’ labour”product, result
productions (n.)“such singular and esteemed productionsproducts
profuse (adj.)“reward their talents with the most profuse liberality”lavish, extreme
projector (n.)“When a projector attempts to establish a new manufacture”one who undertakes a project (perhaps foolishly)
propensity (n.)“a certain propensity in human nature”tendency
proprietor (n.)“had the farmer been proprietor, he might have employed in the further improvement of the land.”owner (of land)
prudence (n.)“their opinion of his fortune, probity, and prudencecarefulness
Prussia (n.)“In the ancient dominions of the King of Prussiaa particular state of what is now Germany
purveyor (n.)“at a price regulated by the purveyorseller
quarter (n.)“the common price of wheat was not less than four ounces of silver the quartera unit of measure equal to 8 bushels (or about 282 litres)
quit (v.)“he quits it when he foresees that its profits are likely to return to the level of other trades”to leave
quit-rent (v.)“the rent which they paid was often nominally little more than a quit-rentmoney rent paid in place of services owed to a landlord
recompense“give their spare time for a very small recompensecompensation, wage
requisite (adj.)“than would otherwise have been requisiteneeded, or required
resolves (v.)“that part of price which resolves itself into labour”can be attributed to
resort (v.)“It is to these sea-lochs that the herrings principally resort during the seasons”to go to
retard (v.)“they must necessarily have retarded the progress of the greater part of Europe”hold back, hinder, or slow down,
room (n.)“This tax was afterwards repealed, and in the room of it was established the window-tax,”place or space
rude (adj.)“the raising of rude produce by the improvement and cultivation of land”basic, unrefined
ruinous (adj.)ruinous to the creditor”tending to ruin (financially)
sagacity (n.)“the sagacity of the spaniel”intelligence
scarce (adj.)“an ordinary market town is scarce large enough”hardly
scholar (n.)“he is said to have had a hundred scholars”student
seignorage (n.)“In England no duty or seignorage is paid upon the coinage”fee charged by a mint to stamp a coin
sensible (adj.)“may not be so distinct and sensibledetectable; perceptible
servile (adj.)“endeavours by every servile and fawning attention”slavish
singular (adj.)“such singular and esteemed productions”unique
situation“The neighbourhood of the sea-coast, and the banks of all navigable rivers, are advantageous situations for industry,”location
small beer (n.)“a liquor which is as cheap as small beerweak beer
smith (n.)“In the same manner a third becomes a smithblacksmith
sober (adj.)“The soberest people scarce look upon it as a folly”careful, cautious
sophistry“the clamour and sophistry of merchants”fallacious (faulty) reasoning
species (n.)“whatever talent or genius he may possess for that particular species of business”type or kind
spendthrift (n.)“unless perhaps the borrower is a spendthriftone who spends wastefully
stipendiary (adj.)“the usual pay of a curate or a stipendiary parish priest”paid a stipend or regular salary
stock (n.)“the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land”resources, materials, goods (depending on context)1
subsistence (n.)“whom they will supply with materials and subsistencemeans of living (food, etc.)
suffer (v.)“it very seldom happens, therefore, that anybody suffers his receipt to expire”to allow (though Smith also uses “suffer” in the modern sense referring to pain)
sufferance (n.)“may sometimes reside by sufferance without one”permission
sumptuary law (n.)“such taxes would operate less as sumptuary laws”a law designed to limit excessive spending
superfluity (n.)“to purchase, a part of this superfluityexcess, or surplus
surety (n.)“two persons of undoubted credit and good landed estate to become surety for him”guarantee or guarantor
surmount (v.)“exercising the one and of surmounting the other”overcome
tale (n.)“received by weight and not by talemeasurement
tenement (n.)“Their small tenement made a considerable part of it”a house and land usually given in exchange for labour
thither (adv.)“when they were brought thitherthere
together (adj.)“they may sometimes be able to keep the secret for several years togetherin a row
toil (n.)“what we acquire by the toil of our own body”labour
Tower-weight (n.)“not to have been estimated lower than four ounces of silver, Tower weight, equal to about”referring to the system of measures once used by the English mint, located in the Tower of London
treat (n.)“The Second Book, therefore, treats of the nature of capital stock”to discuss
treaty (n.)“it is by treaty, by barter, and by purchase that we obtain”negotiation
trifling (adj.)“a very trifling manufacture”unimportant, minor
truck (v.)“this same trucking disposition”to engage in exchange
turnpike (n.)“At many turnpikes, it has been said, the money levied is more than”toll gate
undertaker (n.)“the undertaker of the work”one who does something (one who “undertakes” a task)
victuals (n.)“the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victualsmeals
want (v.)“cannot be supplied with the quantity which they wantlack
wanton (adj.)“the wealth and wanton luxury”excessive
worsted (adj.)“In the same islands they knit worsted stockings”made of spun wool
wrought (v.)“to have wrought for less wages than other labourers”worked
unwholesome (adj.)“trades which are known to be very unwholesomeunhealthy
usury (n.)“probably rather increased than diminished the evil of usurythe lending of money and charging interest
venison (n.)“He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions”the meat of a deer
villain (n.)“gradually encouraged their villains to make upon”servant
violence (n.)“serves only to inflame the violence of national animosity”force
yeomanry (n.)“Those laws and customs so favourable to the yeomanry have perhaps contributed more”the class of gentleman farmers
© Chris MacDonald

1. In his book, Adam Smith, R.H. Campbell provides this more technical explanation: “By stock Smith meant either fixed capital (such as that embodied in plant, ‘useful machines’) or circulating capital (devoted to the purchase of raw materials or labour.”