Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
The word ‘abroad’ is first recorded in English in the fourteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which states that it was originally used as an adverb to mean spread over a wide area, widely scattered, widely known or at large. Its connections with travel and travel writing are more pronounced in later denotations of outdoors, elsewhere or away from one's home. From the sixteenth century onwards, as Britain and its neighbours engaged in voyages of exploration and the boundaries of nation states became more defined, the term would gain more specific reference to being overseas, or out of one's country. The modern sense of ‘abroad’ as a noun that refers to the world beyond one's own country, and thereby opposite to ‘home’ in a patriotic sense, is more commonly found after the nineteenth century. Then it begins to have connotations of the foreign, especially for British travellers, often with negative associations. As a generic site of otherness, ‘abroad’ is also used to describe a desirable, exotic site.
Mark Twain's travel book The Innocents Abroad (1869) uses ‘abroad’ in the earlier sense of being at large, in general circulation or spread out, and not as Robinson Crusoe uses it in resolving ‘not to think of going abroad any more, but to settle at home’ (Defoe 2001 , 7). Although, once on his island, Crusoe uses the word in the more local sense, of ‘going abroad with my gun and my dog’, meaning outside the quasi-home of his fortified hut (Defoe 2001 , 58). The wider sense of ‘abroad’ in opposition to home and in association with foreign places had particular resonance during the colonial era, when the political and economic life of European nations was increasingly dependent on people and goods either going ‘abroad’ or coming from ‘abroad’, and thousands of diplomats and colonial administrators were also posted ‘abroad’ (Macaulay 1979 ).
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘abroad’ referred to a generic place for adventures, enterprise and fame (Defoe 2001 , 1), and in English writing it was often a collective term to describe colonial territories overseas as a distant and shadowy topos.