Pondering the Meaning and Role of Archaic Words — And, Yes, We Can Still Use Them

Usage / Language & Editing

A few years ago, I decided to celebrate my love of Regency and Victorian literature by getting a tattoo of the word “ardent,” paying homage to Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch and every other nineteenth-century novel that uses “ardent” as an evocative and powerful descriptor. My favourite university professor describes Middlemarch as a battle between the words “ardent” and “petty.” And who can forget Mr. Darcy’s passionate (if ill-timed) line, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”?

 

Apparently, most people. Since I got the tattoo, the most common responses have been “What does it mean?” and “What language is it?” Ardent, a favourite word of writers throughout the nineteenth century, has fallen out of use. It has, by some definitions of the word, become archaic.

 

 

What Does It Mean for a Word to Be Archaic?

 

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “archaic,” when regarding words, as “no longer in ordinary use, though retained for special purposes.” Dictionary.com has a slightly different definition, with the entry, “(of a linguistic form) commonly used in an earlier time but rare in present-day usage except to suggest the older time, as in religious rituals or historical novels.”

 

Words may become archaic if a more commonly used word replaces them, or if the word takes on a new meaning. According to an excellent list of archaic words put together by the Oxford University Press, “caboose” originally referred to the “kitchen on a ship’s deck.” My knowledge of ship terminology is minimal at best, but I feel confident that if you asked the average person what “caboose” means, they’d either tell you that it’s the last car on a train or a person’s backside. “Caboose” has shifted its meaning to the point where using it in its original meaning would mislead people, and as such, that particular definition of caboose has become archaic, although the word itself has not.

 

Other words appeared when new concepts or inventions arose and then disappeared when a different word became more prominent. According to the Oxford list, the original term for “car,” before “automobile,” was simply “horseless carriage.” Some words have come to mean what we think of as their opposites (“let” originally meant “hinder”), while some words that came from Old English or other languages simply faded, like “lief,” which meant “as happily” or “as gladly”: “I’d lief do this as that.”

 

And some words have shifted slightly, but in such a way that we can see how the transition occurred. The first-listed definition for “happy” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “favored by luck or fortune.” Thus we say that something is a “happy coincidence.” This doesn’t simply mean that we’re happy about the coincidence; it means that the coincidence is lucky. You can see how the meaning shifted, however. Good luck brings us joy; a lucky person is a happy person, by both the old and the modern definitions.

 

 

The Case of the Mythic Camelopard

 

Some archaic words disappear altogether when different words replace them. My favourite word from the Oxford list is “camelopard,” the original name for a giraffe. It makes sense, if you think about it. In a time without photographs, most people would only be able to imagine exotic animals by comparing them to other animals. So, what do you get when you describe an animal with long legs, a strange, long neck, and spots? Why, a camel-leopard!

 

According to Jakub Marian’s “Origins of the Words ‘Camelopard’ and ‘Giraffe,’” the modern term “comes from French girafe, which in turn comes from Arabic zarāfa. The origin of the Arabic term is not certain, but it may come from Persian zurnāpā, a compound of zurnā (a type of flute) and (leg).” “Flute-leg” isn’t a very helpful name, however, if you’ve never seen a giraffe, and so until the French term came into the English vocabulary to replace it, “camelopard” stuck.

 

 

How to Use Archaic Words in Your Writing

 

What place, then, do archaic words have in modern writing? As the above definitions all mention (somewhat unhelpfully, in my opinion), archaic words can still be used in “special” circumstances. Dictionary.com’s definition, I think, is most applicable: Archaic words, in modern writing, should be mainly used to refer back to older times when the words would be more common. If you’re writing a book set in eighteenth-century England, your characters should not be talking about giraffes but should instead be pondering the exotic camelopard.

 

The best approach, as is often true, is to consider your audience. Are you writing for the public as a whole or for a specialized audience? Your book about the history of shipbuilding could probably refer to a ship’s kitchen as a caboose, but I’d still suggest defining it for any amateur naval historian who might pick up the book.

 

If a word has fallen out of modern usage, or is now used with a different definition (especially if the current meaning is the opposite of the old one, like “let” and “hinder”), think about the purpose that the word will serve by including it. Is there an equally applicable word that more people will understand? Could people be confused if the word has come to mean something different? Archaic words have a place in modern language, but should be used thoughtfully and with deliberation.

 

If a word is still kicking around in modern language, but is outside of the average person’s vocabulary, you can run through your mental checklist. Returning to the word “ardent,” we can ask: Has it come to mean something else? I’d say not. Is there another word that means the same thing? In this case, probably. “Heartfelt,” “passionate,” or “vehement” have similar definitions, even if not quite the same. But do I ardently want to keep it as part of my vocabulary? Absolutely.

 

 

Will There Always Be Archaic Words?

 

We, as readers and writers and editors, have some control over which words become archaic. If you feel ardently about a word that seems to be slipping out of usage, you can make a point of using it in conversation and writing, but your one-person battle likely won’t go very far. Language will evolve whether we like it or not, and archaic words linger as evidence of growth and change.

 

 

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