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Archaisms and historisms Essay


We often hear about words being added to dictionaries as they become part of everyday vernacular, but have you ever heard about any words that get removed? Some people argue that if a word has existed at some point in time then it merits a place in the dictionary. After all, who knows when someone may come across it in an old text and need to look up the definition? Others say that dictionaries should reflect the language that we use here and now, and so those words which have become obsolete in everyday language should no longer have a place in the dictionary. Language and culture are constantly changing, so how do we keep up with these changes without losing our past? The article is intended to go back in time and to disclose archaisms in the English language. Different groups of archaisms, the difference between archaisms and historisms, periods of their development, stylistic features, semantic groups and other problems got their reflection in the article. Different viewpoints of scientists, the aim of using archaisms in belles-lettres and their classification are presented and illustrated by the examples in Russian and English.

1. How do words in everyday language become obsolete?

The vocabulary of a language never remains stable. There are constant changes in the semantic structure of any language. Words appear, undergo a number of phonetic and semantic changes and finally pass completely out of use. The disappearance of various things, phenomena, etc. causes either com­plete disappearance of their names or turns them into «representatives» of a previous epoch. Many words become obsolete in ordinary language, but remain in poetry, in books conforming to a definite style, in oratory, etc. A great many archa­isms survive in English dialects. Thus the fate of obsolete words may be different. We distinguish two groups of obsolete words: archaisms proper and historical terms (historisms). Before turning to them it is of primary importance to distinguish the terms ”archaic” and ”obsolete”. The terms “archaic” and “obsolete” are used more or less indiscriminately by some authors.

The meaning of these temporal labels, however, can be somewhat different among dictionaries. The label archaic is used for words that were once common but are now rare. Archaic implies having the character or characteristics of a much earlier time. Obsolete indicates that a term is no longer in active use, except, for example, in literary quotation. Obsolete may apply to a word regarded as no longer acceptable or useful even though it is still in existence. In the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin [4th ed.], 2004) the archaic label is described this way: “This label is applied to words and senses that were once common but are now rare, though they may be familiar because of their occurrence in certain contexts, such as the literature of an earlier time.

Specifically, this label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is only sporadic evidence in print after 1755.” The AHD describes the obsolete label thus: “The label obsolete is used with entry words and senses no longer in active use, except, for example, in literary quotations. Specifically, this label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is little or no printed evidence since 1755.” In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003), the Explanatory Notes say, “The temporal label obs for obsolete means that there is no evidence of use since 1755. The label obs is a comment on the word being defined. When a thing, as distinguished from the word used to designate it, is obsolete, appropriate orientation is usually given in the definition.

The temporal label archaic means that a word or sense once in common use is found today only sporadically or in special contexts.” Random House Dictionary defines an obsolete word as one “no longer in use, esp. out of use for at least a century”, whereas an archaism is referred to as “current in an earlier time but rare in present usage”. However, it should be pointed out that the borderline between “obsolete” and “archaic” is vague and uncertain, and in many cases it is difficult to decide to which of the groups this or that word belongs.

2. Archaisms proper: etymology, main features and usage.

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. 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 occur only in certain fixed expressions (for example ‘be that as it may’) are not considered to be archaisms. Archaisms proper are obsolete words denoting real things and phenom­ena, but the words themselves are no longer found in ordinary English: they were substituted by others, obsolete words becoming their stylistic synonyms. These words are moribund, already partly or fully out of circulation, rejected by the living language. There are three stages in the aging processes of words:

they become rarely used; they are in the stage of gradually passing out from use; these are the morphological forms belonging to the earlier stage of the development of the language [thee, thou], corresponding verbal endings [thou makest], many French borrowings [palfreu] they have already gone completely out of use and are still recognized by the English-speaking people. [me thinks = it seems to me, nay = no]. archaic words proper is no longer recognizable in modern English; such words were in use during the Old English period, are earlier dropped out of the language or have changed in the appearance so much that they have become unrecognizable [losso =lazy fellow].

While some words become obsolete from everyday language, others still exist but their meaning has changed over time. Words like fun fur have remained in use as their meanings have been adapted to current circumstances. Fun fur used to refer to cheap animal fur that had been dyed in several colors until the 1960s. Today it refers to synthetic fur.

3. Types of archaisms: lexical and grammatical archaisms and their peculiarities

Generally we distinguish lexical and grammatical archaisms. Grammatical archa­isms are forms of words which went out of use with the development of the grammar system of the English language: -th – suffix of the 3rd person sing., Present Indef. Tense, e.g. hath, doth, speaketh; -st – 2nd person – dost, hast, speakest;

art – 2nd person of the verb «to be» pl.;
thou, thee, thy, thine – pronouns;
ye – plural, 2nd person.

Lexical archaisms. Poetry is especially rich in archaisms. Words that are too well known and too often used do not call up such vivid images as words less familiar. This is one of the reasons which impel poets to use archaic words. They are «new» just on account of their being old, and yet they are not utterly unknown to be unintelligible. The following are some of the most common lexical archaisms used in poetry: billow – война; save – кроме; plain – жаловаться; behold – видеть; yon (yonder) – тот; eke – тоже; brow – чело; foe – враг; ere – до; steed – конь; morn – утро; belike – вероятно; damsel – девушка; woe – rope; oft, oft-times – часто; mere – озеро, пруд; hearken – слушать; albeit – хотя, etc. Their last refuge is in historical novels (whose authors used them to create a particular period atmosphere) and, of course, in poetry which is rather conservative in its choice of words.

So their main function is to sustain a special evaluated atmosphere of poetry. They form an insignificant layer of special literary vocabulary. On the whole they are detached from the common literary vocabulary. Thus, the use of archaic words is a stylistic device. In historical novels they create an atmosphere of the past. In the depiction of events of the present they assume the function of a stylistic device proper. The stylistic functions of the archaic words are based on the temporary perception of the event. Even when used in a terminological aspect they create a special atmosphere in the utterance. They form a rather insignificant layer of the special literary vocabulary.

1. They are used by authors to produce an elevated (возвыш) effect.
2. They have a tendency to detach themselves from the common literary word-stock and assume the quality of terms denoting certain notions and calling forth poetic diction.

Closely associated with archaisms are poetical words. The use of poetic words doesn’t as a rule create the atmosphere of poetry, but it substitutes its expressiveness. The common way of creating such words is compounding [young-eyed, rosy-fingered]. Poetic words and expressions are understandable to a limited number of readers. In modern poetry words are often used in strange combinations [the sound of shame]. Poetic words in an ordinary environment may also have a satirical function. They can also be found in other styles, e.g. in journalistic style: proceed (go), the welkin (the sky), the vale (the valley), the devouring element (the fire).

Archaic words – yclept (to call, name), quoth (to speak), eftsoons (again soon after) are good examples. They evoke emotive meaning. They color the utterance with the certain air of loftiness (elevation). But generally fail to produce a general feeling of delight. They are taken hacked, too outdate. These words are often used by modern ballet mangers (сочинители баллад). Some poetical words and set expressions make the utterance understandable only to a limited number of readers. This poetical language is often called poetical jargon.

“Alas! They had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain…”

Thou and thy, aye (“yes”) and nay (“no”) are certainly archaic and long since rejected by common usage, yet poets use them even today. (We also find the same four words and many other archaisms among dialectisms, which is quite natural, as dialects are also conservative and retain archaic words and structures). Numerous archaisms can be found in Shakespeare, but it should be taken into consideration that what appear to us today as archaisms in the works of Shakespeare, are in fact examples of everyday language of Shakespeare’s time. There are several such archaisms in Viola’s speech from Twelfth Night:

“There is a fair behavior in thee, Captain,
And though that nature with a beauteous wall
Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee
I will believe thou hast a mind that suits
With this thy fair and outward character.
I prithee — and I’ll pay thee bounteously
— Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent…”
(Act 1, Sc. 2) 32

Further examples of archaisms are: morn (for morning), eve (for evening), moon (for month), damsel (for girl), errant (for wandering, e.g. errant knights), etc. Sometimes, an archaic word may undergo a sudden revival. So, the formerly archaic kin (for relatives; one’s family) is now current in American usage. Archaisms are also most frequently encountered in poetry, law, science, technology, geography 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 recognized, they can be revived, as the word anent was in this past century. Because they are things of continual discovery and re-invention, scie nce 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 recognized 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.

4. Historims: main features and classification

Historisms are names of things and phenomena which passed out of use with the development of social, economical, cultural life of society but which retain historical importance. Unlike archaisms, historical terms have no syno­nyms in Modern English: they are only names of things and notions which refer to the past of the English people. The sphere of these words is restricted with scientific literature or with books and novels dealing with certain historical periods. There are lots of his­torisms in the historical novels of W.Scott and other English authors, e.g.: Historisms are very numerous as names for social relations, institutions and objects of material culture of the past. The names of ancient transport means, ancient clothes, weapons, musical instruments can offer many examples. Before the appearance of motor-cars many different types of horse-drawn carriages were in use. The names of some of them are: brougham, berlin, calash, diligence, fly, gig, hansom, landeau, phaeton, etc. It is interesting to mention specially the romantically metaphoric prairie schooner ‘a canvas-covered wagon used by pioneers crossing the North American prairies’.

There are still many sailing ships in use, and schooner in the meaning of ‘a sea-going vessel’ is not an historism, but a prairie schooner is. Many types of sailing craft belong to the past as caravels or galleons, so their names are historisms too. The history of costume forms an interesting topic by itself. It is reflected in the history of corresponding terms. The corresponding glossaries may be very long. Only very few examples can be mentioned here. In W. Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, doublets are often mentioned. A doublet is a close-fitting jacket with or without sleeves worn by men in the 15th-17th centuries. It is interesting to note that descriptions of ancient garments given in dictionaries often include their social functions in this or that period. Thus, a tabard of the 15th century was a short surcoat open at the sides and with short sleeves, worn by a knight over his armour and emblazoned on the front, back and sides with his armorial bearings.

Not all historisms refer to such distant periods. Thus, bloomers — an outfit designed for women in mid-nineteenth century. It consisted of Turkish-style trousers gathered at the ankles and worn by women as “a rational dress”. It was introduced by Mrs Bloomer, editor and social reformer, as a contribution to woman rights movement. Somewhat later bloomers were worn by girls and women for games and cycling, but then they became shorter and reached only to the knee. A great many historisms denoting various types of weapons occur in historical novels, e. g. a battering ram ‘an ancient machine for breaking walls’; a blunderbuss ‘an old type of gun with a wide muzzle’;

breastplate ‘a piece of metal armour worn by knights over the chest to protect it in battle’; a crossbow ‘a medieval weapon consisting of a bow fixed across a wooden stock’. Many words belonging to this semantic field remain in the vocabulary in some figurative meaning, e. g. arrow, shield, sword, vizor, etc. Thus we can distinguish the following types of historisms: 1. words of social position: yeomen – йомен, knight – рыцарь, scribe – писец;

2. names of arms and words connected with war: battle ax – боевой то­ порик, musket – мушкет, visor – забрало, warrior – воин, sword – меч, gauntlet – рыцарская перчатка = латная рукавица, archer – стрелок из лука, spear – копье;

3. types of vessels: galley – галера, frigate – фрегат, caravel – каравелла; 4. types of carts which went out of use: brougham – одноместная карета, chaise – фаэтон, легкая повозка с открытым верхом, hansom – двухместный экипаж, где сидение кучера расположено позади и несколь­ ко выше мест для седоков, coach – карета (почтовая); 5. names of old musical instruments: lute – лютня, lyre – лира. So the number of historisms which reflect the social life and culture of the past is very great.


Though many of the words discussed above are rather old-fashioned, outdate and are rarely used in modern society, they still have a unique place in the depositary of English word-stock. Thus they can be found in bigger dictionaries as they might be relevant to specific fields. Words and their meanings are always bound to specific contexts and times in which their meaning makes sense. Anyone learning a language needs to be aware of how words are used today and historically in order to correctly interpret and understand their meaning. So one should always keep up with the constant changes in language to make sure that their skills are the most appropriate for today’s modern world.

Methodical literature

1. Атрушина Г. Б., Афанасьева О. В., Морозова Н. Н. Лексикология английского языка: Учеб. пособие для студентов. Дрофа, 1999 2. Гинзбург, С. С. Хидекель, Г. Ю. Князева и А. А. Санкин. Лексикология английского языка: Учебник для ин-тов и фак. иностр. яз. Высш. школа, 1979. 3. Арнольд И. В.

Лексикология современного английского языка: Учеб. для ин-тов и фак. иностр. яз. М.: Высш. шк., 1986. — 295 с., ил. — На англ. яз.

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