You can find some of them in a dictionary. They will likely be labeled “archaic” or “obsolete.” You’d have to look in an unabridged dictionary, or even the OED to find others.
We’ll run across archaisms sometimes when we read older works. That’s why it’s important to know what they mean. And it would be nice if we could start using some of them again.
In any case, enjoy.
Many lists of obsolete or archaic words I have seen include gallimaufry. And why not? It means a hash made with leftovers, or more generally, a hodgepodge. It perfectly describes lists of obsolete or archaic words, doesn’t it?
Wouldn’t “A Gallimaufry of Archaisms” be a great title for a post? Except hardly anyone would know what it means.
Welkin means sky or heaven. Or it did when anyone still used it. Are you familiar with this Christmas poem by Charles Wesley?
“Hark how all the welkin rings glory to the king of kings.”
Probably not. His friend George Whitfield included it in a collection of hymn texts. But he changed the opening to “Hark the herald angels sing glory to the newborn king.”
Wesley was livid. Where in the Bible does it ever say that angels sing? Whitfield replied that theological precision didn’t matter if it required a word only an Oxford scholar like Wesley would understand. People in Shakespeare’s time understood welkin. People in Wesley’s time not so much.
Wesley wrote his poem in 1739. Whitfield published his variant in 1744. And that’s why “welkin” is considered an archaism. It passed out of common use before 1755. If it had passed out of common use after 1755, dictionaries would label it obsolete instead of archaic. Clear?
We used to call an outbreak of plague or other lethal disease pestilences. You can see the word “pest” as its stem. Pest especially refers to rats, mosquitos, and other disease carriers.
It’s one of those Latin words that bring with it a wealth of other forms. So the adjectives pestiferous or pestilential characterize the associated noun as physically or morally deadly.
Why have we stopped using pestilence so much anymore? Maybe it’s because we don’t like long words as much as we used to. So we use pandemic instead. (Hmmm.)
And what adjectives does pandemic allow? I don’t recall seeing viruses numbered among pandemical agents. At least my spell checker isn’t warning me about it. But I guess it’s too late to suggest going back to pestilence.
Our current pestilence has required many of us to quarantine, or at least shelter in place. (Although quarantine really means 40 days, not 14.)
Cut off from all our favorite activities, it’s easy just to lie around and do nothing. Not even shave or get dressed.
Four hundred years ago, a slovenly person, without the excuse of a pestilence, would have been called a slubberdegullion.
My spell checker recognizes most of the other words I’m using. Not this one. But doesn’t it just sound exactly like the kind of person it describes?
Thomas Jefferson had an unusual diet for his time. He wrote, “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, & that, not as an aliment so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.”
In modern English, he said that he didn’t eat much meat. He only used it as a flavoring for his veggies.
We still use “condiment,” but somehow “aliment” joined the league of archaisms.
Winter is usually cold and cloudy. When the sun shines in the winter and makes us feel warm, what can we call it now? It’s too bad we abandoned such a useful and beautiful word. But it happened long ago.
Methinks it’s technically an archaic word, not obsolete.
Contumely, on the other hand, is an ugly word that describes ugly behavior. It means rudeness or contempt towards others.
Think of the civility of discourse on social media. Or lack thereof. We have plenty of contumely these days. It’s hard to stay away from it. We just don’t call it contumely anymore.
Not all archaisms are words we don’t use anymore. Some current words have archaic or obsolete meanings.
We still use demoralize when something undermines confidence or morale. We just don’t use it for something that corrupts morals. Maybe that’s because expressing any preference for uncorrupted morals invites contumely.
Years ago, I got to work and found a note on my desk from my boss. She wrote, “From your list of dealers that you deal with, it would behoove you to . . . ”
I marveled that she wrote so many unnecessary words. She could have started with whatever verb came next. I also marveled because I had seen “behoove” in old writings, but here was something only hours old. Does anyone actually use “behoove” these days? Surely not very frequently.
So I came across “behoof” when I was looking for archaic words to write about. I don’t ever remember seeing it anywhere, but I sort of knew what it meant from the verb form.
My dictionary says benefit or advantage. It’s the kind of word that, when anyone uses it at all anymore, it’s for humorous effect.
Usually, when I make a bad pun, people just groan. Once, a fellow glared at me and said, “You’re barking up the wrong tree trying to get to the root of the problem. But when you go out on a limb, you make an ash of yourself. [short, dramatic pause] And I’d as lief you wouldn’t.”
I had to look it up, but he ended with a real phrase. He didn’t substitute “leaf” for “leave” as he substituted “ash” for “ass.” Not that “as leave” would ever mean anything.
My spell checker has corrected “lief” to “life” twice now. “Lief” appears to be related to German or Dutch for love. The phrase “as lief” means willingly, gladly, or in some cases, preferably. Or it used to before it joined the legion of archaic words.
Do you have any favorite archaisms to share?