In language, an archaism (from the Ancient Greek: ἀρχαϊκός, archaïkós, 'old-fashioned, antiquated', ultimately ἀρχαῖος, archaîos, 'from the beginning, ancient') is the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current or that is current only within a few special contexts. Their deliberate use can be subdivided into literary archaisms, which seeks to evoke the style of older speech and writing; and lexical archaisms, the use of words no longer in common use.[1]

A distinction between archaic and obsolete words and word senses is widely used by dictionaries. An archaic word or sense is one that still has some current use but whose use has dwindled to a few specialized contexts, outside which it connotes old-fashioned language. A good example of an archaic sense is the present subjunctive form be: it is not obsolete—it is used in constructions such as whether it be X or Y and be that as it may—but it is little used outside of those specific contexts and a few others, and its use outside of them sounds old-fashioned. In contrast, an obsolete word or sense is one that is no longer used at all. A reader encounters them when reading texts that are centuries old. For example, the works of Shakespeare are old enough that some obsolete words or senses are encountered therein, for which glosses (annotations) are often provided in the margins

Archaisms can either be used deliberately (to achieve a specific effect) or as part of a specific jargon (for example in law) or formula (for example in religious contexts). Many nursery rhymes contain archaisms. Some archaisms called fossil words remain in use within certain fixed expressions despite having faded away in all other contexts (for example, vim is not used in normal English outside the set phrase vim and vigor).

An outdated form of language is called archaic. In contrast, a language or dialect that contains many archaic traits (archaisms) relative to closely related languages or dialects spoken at the same time is called conservative. For example, in the 21st century, Icelandic, a thoroughly modern language, is highly conservative compared to its close relatives Norwegian and (highly innovative) Danish, as Icelandic resembles its medieval predecessor Old Icelandic much more than Norwegian resembles Old Norwegian and Danish resembles Old Danish. Of all the modern North Germanic languages, Icelandic resembles their common ancestor (Late Proto-Norse) most. In the 6th century AD, Classical Arabic was a conservative Semitic language compared with Classical Syriac, which was spoken at the same time; Classical Arabic strongly resembles reconstructed Proto-Semitic, while Syriac has changed much more. Compared to closely related modern Northeastern Neo-Aramaic (which is not necessarily directly descended from it), however, Classical Syriac is still a highly archaic language form. Georgian has changed remarkably little since the Old Georgian period (since the 4th/5th century AD), but this is only in comparison with surrounding unrelated languages, as Georgian is the only language of its family (Karvelian) that has a long literary tradition. However, all languages and dialects that are in active use do change and none can ever stay the same for centuries.


A type of archaism is using the pronoun thou: this used to be how an individual was addressed, while you, formerly only used to address groups, and then also to respectfully address individuals, is now used to address both individuals and groups (but since this can result in ambiguity, y'all can be used to re-introduce the distinction). Thou is the nominative form; the oblique/objective form is thee (functioning as both accusative and dative), and the possessive is thy or thine.

"Though thou hast ever so many counsellors, yet ["yet" is generally not an archaism, but it is in this context] do not forsake the counsel of thy own soul."[2] English proverb
"Today me, tomorrow thee."[3] English proverb

The meaning of this proverb is that something that happens to a person, is likely to eventually happen to another who observes it, especially if the two people are similar.

"To thine own self be true."[4] William Shakespeare

The meaning of this saying is simply that it is unwise to lie to yourself.

Archaisms in proverbs are often retained, far longer than in other parts of the language. This is because they make the proverbs "fall easier on the tongue".[5] And also because of the rhetorical effect they evoke by the use of two of the four fundamental operations in rhetoric. Namely, permutation (immutatio) and addition (adiectio).


Archaisms are most frequently encountered in poetry, law, philosophy, science, technology, geography and ritual writing and speech. Archaisms are kept alive by these ritual and literary uses and by the study of older literature. Should they remain recognised, they can be revived, as the word anent was in this past century.

Because they are things of continual discovery and re-invention, science and technology have historically generated forms of speech and writing which have dated and fallen into disuse relatively quickly. However the emotional associations of certain words (for example: 'Wireless' rather than 'Radio' for a generation of British citizens who lived through the Second World War) have kept them alive even though the older word is clearly an archaism.

A similar desire to evoke a former age means that archaic place names are frequently used in circumstances where doing so conveys a political or emotional subtext, or when the official new name is not recognised by all (for example: 'Persia' rather than 'Iran', 'Bombay' rather than 'Mumbai', 'Madras' rather than 'Chennai'). So, a restaurant seeking to conjure up historic associations might prefer to call itself Old Bombay or refer to Persian cuisine in preference to using the newer place name. A notable contemporary example is the name of the airline Cathay Pacific, which uses the archaic Cathay ("China").

Archaisms are frequently misunderstood, leading to changes in usage. One example is found in the phrase "the odd man out", which originally came from the phrase "to find the odd man out", where the verb "to find out" has been split by its object "the odd man", meaning the item which does not fit.

The compound adverbs and prepositions found in the writing of lawyers (e.g. heretofore, hereunto, thereof) are examples of archaisms as a form of jargon. Some phraseologies, especially in religious contexts, retain archaic elements that are not used in ordinary speech in any other context: "With this ring I thee wed." Archaisms are also used in the dialogue of historical novels in order to evoke the flavour of the period. Some may count as inherently funny words and are used for humorous effect.

Alternative meanings

In anthropological studies of culture, archaism is defined as the absence of writing and subsistence economy.

In history, archaism is used to connote a superior, albeit mythical, "golden age".

See also


  1. Thomas Burns McArthur; Roshan McArthur (2005). Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-19-280637-6. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  2. Strauss, Emanuel (1994). Dictionary of European proverbs (Volume 2 ed.). Routledge. p. 1044. ISBN 0415096243.
  3. Strauss, Emanuel (1994). Dictionary of European proverbs (Volume 2 ed.). Routledge. p. 1038. ISBN 0415096243.
  4. Hamlet, Polonius, scene III
  5. David John Allerton; Nadja Nesselhauf; Paul Skandera (2004). Phraseological Units: Basic Concepts and Their Application. Schwabe Verlag Basel. p. 80. ISBN 978-3-7965-1949-9. Retrieved 4 September 2013.

External links

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