Archaisms in literature



1 General information about archaisms



The process of words aging

Alternative meanings



List of archaic English words and their modern equivalents

2 Analysis of ancient texts

W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 2

“Love and duty reconcil’d” by W. Congreve

3 Archaisms in literature and mass media

Deliberate usage of archaisms

Commonly misused archaisms




The word-stock of a language is in an increasing state of change. Words change their meaning and sometimes drop out of the language altogether. New words spring up and replace the old ones. Some words stay in the language a very long time and do not lose their faculty of gaining new meanings and becoming richer and richer polysemantically. Other words live but a short time and are like bubbles on the surface of water — they disappear leaving no trace of their existence. In registering these processes the role of dictionaries can hardly be over-estimated. Dictionaries serve to retain this or that word in a language either as a relic of ancient times, where it lived and circulated, or as a still living unit of the system, though it may have lost some of its meanings. They may also preserve certain nonce-creations, which were never intended for general use. In every period in the development of a literary language one can find words which will show more or less apparent changes in their meaning or usage, from full vigour, through a moribund state, to death, i. e. complete disappearance of the unit from the language.

Usually we do not notice the change that takes place during our own time because it happens quite slowly. But if we take a look back over a considerable span of time, language change becomes more obvious. If we touch the problem of historical development we can not pass over in silence peculiarities of early English language, and comparison between initial and today’s English. Such line of investigation considers diachronic approach to the main question of this course work – archaisms in literature. It’s very important to reveal the notion of archaism, the sphere of usage, origin and many other essential components that are comprised by the word “Archaism”. Besides the direct investigation of archaisms I included information about neologisms, as contrary notion, and also about retronyms.  All the aspects stated above will be carefully investigated in this work; moreover there will be included olden text with and analysis of poetry.

1General information about archaisms


Archaisms are words which are no longer used in everyday speech, which have been ousted by their synonyms. Archaisms remain in the language, but they are used as stylistic devices to express solemnity. Most of these words are lexical archaisms and they are stylistic synonyms of words which ousted them from the neutral style. Some of them are: steed (horse), slay (kill), behold (see), perchance (perhaps), woe (sorrow) etc. An archaism can be a word, a phrase, or the use of spelling, letters, or syntax that have passed out of use. Because they are both uncommon and dated, archaisms draw attention to themselves when used in general communication.

Writers of historical novels, as well as historians and film makers, for example, do their best to represent time and culture accurately and avoid unintentional archaisms. Creating a fictional character from times past may require extensive research into and knowledge of archaisms.

An example of a fairly common archaism involving spelling and letters is businesses that include Ye Olde in their name. The word Ye does not actually start with a y, as it may appear; it begins with the letter thorn which has passed out of use. Thorn was a letter used to spell the sound we now spell with the consonant digraph th. Hence, Ye is pronounced as and means the. Olde reflects a spelling from Middle English of the word we now write as old. Businesses may use such archaisms to invoke a mood or atmosphere — as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or The Publick Theare; or to convey something about their product — as in Olde Musick and Cokery Books, an Australian firm specializing in sheet music and recipes from the past.

Certain phrases are associated with rituals and traditions, and though they would not be considered current if used in general speech or writing, they continue to be used in the venues or situations in which they are meaningful. For example, phrases such as “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” are considered archaic in general use, but being part of the common English translation of the Ten Commandments, they continue to be repeated and used in that context without calling attention to themselves. Syntax falls into this category as well. Legal writs characteristically include lists of phrases beginning Whereas, followed by one beginning therefore — an archaic style and structure not typically found elsewhere.

Archaisms can also be put to good use when they are carefully chosen to create irony or humor. One could, for example, mock the triviality of an errand run by saying, “Alas, I must away on my journey betimes. I must traverse the roads, journeying hither and yon in search of . . . muffins.” Used seriously in general discourse, however, archaisms can seem affected or be misunderstood.

Sometimes a lexical archaism begins a new life, getting a new meaning, then the old meaning becomes a semantic archaism, e.g. “fair” in the meaning “beautiful” is a semantic archaism, but in the meaning “blond” it belongs to the neutral style.
 Sometimes the root of the word remains and the affix is changed, then the old affix is considered to be a morphemic archaism, e.g. “beauteous” - ous was substituted by - ful, “bepaint” - be- was dropped, “darksome” -some was dropped, “oft” -en was added etc.

In language, an archaism is the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current. This can either be done 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. Archaic elements that only occur in certain fixed expressions (for example “be that as it may”) are not considered to be archaisms.


Archaisms are most frequently encountered in poetry, law, and ritual writing and speech. 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. 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 the past century.

Some, such as academic and amateur philologists, enjoy learning and using archaisms either in speech or writing, though this may sometimes be misconstrued as pseudo-intellectualism.

Archaisms are frequently misunderstood, leading to changes in usage. One example is the use of the archaic familiar second person singular pronoun “thou” to refer to God in English Christianity. Although originally a familiar pronoun, it has been misinterpreted as a respectful one by many modern Christians. Another 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.

The process of words aging

We shall distinguish three stages in the aging process of words: The beginning of the aging process when the word becomes rarely used. Such words are called obsolescent, i.e. they are in the stage of gradually passing out of general use. To this category first of all belong morphological forms belonging to the earlier stages in the development of the language. In the English language these are the pronouns thou and its forms thee, thy and thine, the corresponding verbal ending -est and the verb-forms art, wilt (thou makest, thou wilt), the ending -(e)th instead of -(e)s (he maketh) and the pronoun ye. To the category of obsolescent words belong many French borrowings which have been kept in the literary language as a means of preserving the spirit of earlier periods, e. g. a pallet (a straw mattress); a palfrey (a small horse); garniture (furniture); to peplume (to adorn with feathers or plumes). The second group of archaic words are those that have already gone completely out of use but are still recognised by the English-speaking community: e. g. methinks (it seems to me); nay (=no). These words are called obsolete. The third group, which may be called archaic proper, are words which are no longer recognizable in modern English, words that were in use in Old English and which have either dropped out of the language entirely or have changed in their appearance so much that they have become unrecognizable, e. g. troth (=faith); a losel (=a worthless, lazy fellow).It will be noted that on the diagram (p. 71) the small circles denoting archaic and poetic words overlap and both extend beyond the large circle "special literary vocabulary". This indicates that some of the words in these layers do not belong to the present-day English vocabulary. The borderlines between the groups are not distinct. - In fact they interpenetrate. It is especially difficult to distinguish between obsolete and obsolescent words. But the difference is important when we come to deal with the stylistic aspect of an utterance in which the given word serves a certain stylistic purpose. Obsolete and obsolescent words have separate functions, as we shall point oirt later. There is still another class of words, which is erroneously classed as archaic, viz. historical words. By-gone periods in the life of any society are marked by historical events, and by institutions, customs, material objects, etc. which are no longer in use, for example: -Thane, yeoman, goblet, baldric, mace. Words of this typeriever disappear from the language. They are historical terms and remain as terms referring to definite stages in the development of society and cannot therefore be dispensed with,, though the things and phenomena to which they refer have long passed into oblivion. This, the main function of archaisms, finds different interpretation in- different novels .by different writers. Some writers overdo things in this respect, the result being that the reader finds all kinds of obstacles in his way. Others under-estimate the necessity of introducing obsolete or obsolescent elements into their narration and thus fail to convey what is called "local colour".

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, albeitmythical, "golden age."


New words and expressions or neologisms are created for new things irrespective of their scale of importance. They may be all-important and concern some social relationships, such as a new form of state, e. g. People's Republic, or something threaten­ing the very existence of humanity, like nuclear war. Or again they may be quite insignificant and short-lived, like fashions in dancing, clothing, hair-do or footwear, as the already outdated jitterbug and pony-tail. In every case either the old words are appro­priately changed in meaning or new words are borrowed, or more often coined out of the existing language material according to the pat­terns and ways productive in the language at a given stage of its development.


 A retronym is a type of neologism coined for an old object or concept whose original name has come to be used for something else, is no longer unique, or is otherwise inappropriate or misleading. The term was coined by Frank Mankiewicz and popularized by William Safire in 1980 in the New York Times. Many of these are created by advances in technology. However, a retronym itself is a neological word coinage consisting of the original noun with a different adjective added, which emphasises the distinction to be made from the original form.

In 2000, the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition was the first major dictionary to include the word retronym. (3)

Examples of retronyms are acoustic guitar (coined when electric guitars appeared), or Parallel ATA (necessitated by the introduction of Serial ATA) as a term for the original Advanced Technology Attachment. World War I was called only the Great War until World War II. The advent of satellite radio has prompted the term terrestrial radio.

Posthumous names awarded in East Asian cultures to royalty after their death can be considered retronyms too, although their birth names will remain unambiguous.

Careless use of retronyms in historical fiction can cause anachronisms. For example, referring to the "First World War" in a piece set in 1935 would be incorrect — "The Great War" and "14-18 War" were commonly employed descriptions. Anachronistic use of a retronym could also betray a modern document forgery (such as a description of the First Battle of Bull Run before the second had taken place).

 List of archaic English words and their modern equivalents

This is a list of archaic English words and their modern equivalents. These words and spellings are now considered archaic or obsolescent within the current status of the English language. Given both the rapidity of change in modern English and the number of versions used by nations and cultures, it should be borne in mind that dates are approximate and that the information here may not apply to all versions of English.

The evolution of the English language is characterised by three phases. The first period dates from approximately 450 (the settlement of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in England) to 1066 AD (the Norman Conquest). At this time the language made use of almost full inflexion, and is called Anglo-Saxon, or more exactly Old English. The second period dates from the Norman Conquest to probably c.1400 (though some books differ on when this period ends) and is called Middle English. During this time the majority of the inflections disappeared, and many Norman and French words joined the language because of the profound influence of the Anglo-Norman ruling class. The third period dates from about 1400 to today (2006), and is known as Modern English, though until recently it was called New English. During the Modern English period, thousands of words have been derived by scholars from the Classical languages.

The impact of dictionaries in the definition of obsolescent or archaic forms has caused the standardisation of spelling, hence many variant forms have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

List of archaic English words and their modern equivalents

Original word






form of the verb 'to be', from Old English eart

present second-person singular form of the verb be.

…Who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry? (Psalm 76:7)

used in Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical language

past participle of 'astony' from Middle English astonien < Old French estoner < Vulgar Latin *extonare = 'to thunder'

to stun, amaze, or astonish; astound or bewilder…and I sat astonied unitl the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:4)used in Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical language

from Old English betweohs or dative betweoxum (between)


…He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.(Song of Solomon 1:13)

used in Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical language, also used in some Southern and Appalachian dialects of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries.
bilboFrom Bilbao, Spain, the best known place of manufacturean obscure and seldom used word for a short swordBilbo is the Basque word for Bilbao. (Bilbo Baggins is a fictional character.)

from bob move up and down, dance, rebound + -ish

brisk, wellUsed in 1860s
Bouncableunknown by smellinessa swaggering boasterUsed in 1860s
Bridewellfrom the London prison of that namea prisonUsed in 1860s (and in common current use in Nottingham where the police station attached to the Magistrates' Court is called The Bridewell)

from the noun cad

wickedthe noun 'cad' is dying out
cag-magunknowndecaying meatUsed in 1860s
chalk scoresunknowna reference to accounts of debt, recorded with chalk marksUsed in 1860s
coddleshellunknowncodicil; a modification to one's legal willUsed in 1860s
Coinerunknowna counterfeiterUsed in 1860s
connexionFrom French "Connexion"variant spelling of connection

Imagination could conceive almost anything in connexion with this place. (At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft)

Used in the 19th century

coster comes from Costard, a type of cooking apple, monger means trader or seller

a greengrocer, seller of fruit and vegetables

fishmonger, ironmonger and warmonger are among the surviving words ending in -monger

coveunknowna fellow or chap

It's what a coveknows that counts, ain't it, Sybil? (The Difference Engine, by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson)

Used in 1860s
crazeOld Norse, through Old Frenchto shatterUsed in 14th Century. A remnant survives in the phrase "cracked and crazed", also in ceramics where a glaze that has fine lines like cracks is called a craze. A modern usage would be in crazed paving.
dostfrom dopresent second-person singular form of the verb do

I cry unto thee, and thou dost not hear me... (Job 30:20)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
dothfrom dopresent third-person singular form of the verb do

The north wind driveth away rain: so doth an angry countenance a backbiting tongue. (Proverbs 25:23)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
drabunknowna prostitute

Finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch-delivered by a drab. (Shakespeare's Macbeth)

dreamA part of the root stock of the OE

Under the influence of Old Norse speakers in England, the word dream changed its meaning from ``joy, festivity, noisy merriment" to ``a sleeping vision". Died out before the 13th century.

ducatsA bullion coin (not legal tender) used in international trademoneyAustrian Ducats were displaced by Gold Sovereigns throughout the British Empire. The term is used today only to refer to the coin in numismatic circles, as Ducats are still produced by the Austrian mint. Ducat, in Latin, means "he rules", "she rules", or "it rules".
eek, ekeOld English "ecan", to increase. Compare Dutch "ook" (also).also

When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath Inspired hath in every holt and heath (in this case, meaning is closer to "also") (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) ;

Used mostly in Middle English, but also later on until the 1600s. Is the origin for the word "nickname" (in Middle English "ekename").
-estfrom Old English "-est". Compare with German "-st".suffix used to form the present second-person singular of regular verbs

When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble (Proverbs 4:12)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
-ethfrom Old English "-eр". Compare with Dutch and German "-t".suffix used to form the present third-person singular of regular verbs

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (Psalm 23:2)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
fire a rickunknownto burn a stack of hay (rick), as a form of protestUsed in 1860s
Forsooth!Really!Used in Shakespearian English
flueyFrom the flue of a chimney, normally coated with soot from log or coal firesdustyUsed in 1860s
Grinderunknowna tutor who prepares students for examinationsUsed in 1860s
hastfrom havepresent second-person singular form of the verb have

Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing... (Psalm 17:3)

Compare to hast in German. Used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.

hathfrom havepresent third-person singular form of the verb have

This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

used in Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical language
hither(to) hereEnglish accusative case form
ivory tabletsunknownpaper for notetakingUsed in 1860s

Middle English kyen, a plural of the Old English cy, plural of cu, meaning cow


Used until late 1800s; still in Biblical use; Spenser used the form kyne

moteunknownmay, mightNB. It may be argued that it is not technically defunct since the word is still used in freemasonry and wicca as part of certain rituals.
over the broomstickunknownto be married in a folk ceremony and not recognized by the law. Still commonly used as part of the ceremony in modern Pagan weddings by Wiccans, Witches and other alternative spiritualities.

"Then if somebody been wantin' to marry they step over the broom and it be nounced they married" (Slave Narratives Betty Curlett of Hazen, Arkansas).

Used in 1860s, "over the brush" still used in British English, c.f. jumping the broomstick.

quantumLatin for "as much", "how much"money to pay a billUsed in 1860s. Still used in this sense in some legal terminology.
rantipoleunknownto behave in a romping or rude mannerUsed in 1860s
read withunknownto tutorUsed in 1860s, still used in Caribbean English
shake-downunknowna bedUsed in 1860s, also a modern slang term dealing with law enforcement, and, as an adjective indicating an initial cruise for a Navy ship
shaltfrom shallused to form the future tense of verbs

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. (Psalm 2:9)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language
shewunknownVariant of show.

'To shew Louisa, how alike in their creeds, her father and Harthouse are?' - (Dickens' notes on Hard Times).

Used in the 19th century

past participle of 'smite' from Old English smitan = 'to strike'

To strike hard, beat, inflict a blow

And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter... (Judges 15:8)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
stand highunknownto have a good reputationUsed in 1860s
thee, thou, thy/thine

from Old English юъ

old 2nd person singular pronoun

Thou art my God, and I will praise thee:thou art my God, I will exalt thee. (Psalm 118:28)

"Thee" is used when it is the grammatical object, "thou" when it is the subject. "Thy" and "thine" are both genitives, but "thine" is only used in front of an initial vowel or h. Still used in Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical language.
Also still used in northern dialects of British English e.g. Yorkshire.

thither(to) thereEnglish accusative case form of indicative pronoun there

from Old English юolian

to bear; put up with; suffer

A man with a good crop can thole some thistles (Scots Proverb)

Still used in northern and Scottish dialects of British English e.g. Yorkshire.
untoto, onto, upon

And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? (Genesis 3:9)

Mainly used in Early Modern English.
wertfrom beimperfect second-person singular form of the verb be

If thou wert pure and upright; surely now he would awake for thee, and make the habitation of thy righteousness prosperous. (Job 8:6)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
whitesmithfrom blacksmith, an iron workera tinsmithUsed in 1860s

contraction of where hither

to where (destination)

whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? (Genesis 16:8)

Compare to wohin in German. used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.

whitlowunknowna sore or swelling in a finger or thumbUsed in 1860s, still used in British English
wiltfrom willused to form the future tense of verbs

whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? (Genesis 16:8)

used in Biblical, Shakespearian and poetical language.
wittlesfrom "victuals"food

You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles. (Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)

Used in 1860s, vittles still used in British and American English

zoundscorrupted form of "Christ's wounds"expletivestill used occasionally in British English