Archaism (Words and Syntax)

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An archaism is a word or phrase (or a particular meaning of a word or phrase) that is no longer in common use and is considered extremely old-fashioned.

Etymology: From the Greek, "ancient, beginning"

Pronunciation: ARE-kay-i-zem

Also Known As: lexical zombie

grammatical archaism is a sentence structure or word order that's no longer in common use in most dialects

Linguist Tom McArthur notes that literary archaism occurs "when a style is modeled on older works, so as to revive earlier practices or achieve the desired effect." (Source: Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 2005)


  • "The old man raised the axe and split the head of John Joel Glanton to the thrapple."
    (Source: Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, 1985)
  • "[Nick Faldo] speaks in a jaunty, clipped, wised-up vernacular, mixing street-smart patter with solid analysis. His vocabulary is rich in curious archaisms—'jeepers,' 'crumbs,' 'gee'—and eccentric asides."
    (Source: Jason Cowley, "Nick's Second Coming." The Guardian, Oct. 1, 2006)

19th-Century Archaisms

"We do not have to go back as far as Elizabethan English or the Middle Ages to encounter archaisms. Here are some from the Victorian and Edwardian eras:
beastly (as in 'so beastly critical')
blest, deuced (if I know)
capital! (as an exclamation of delight)
very civil (of you)
confound you!
damnable cheek
pray (come in)
(you) rotter
And might we not say that daddy-o is an archaism, even though it was alive and well in the 1960s?"
(Source: David Crystal, Words, Words, Words. Oxford University Press, 2006)

20th-Century Archaisms

"Among the technological archaisms I've had to explain to the Tuned In children—what a 'record' is, why they call it 'dialing' a phone, the fact that, once, you couldn't rewind TV shows—is the fact that, a long time ago, musicians used to make little movies of their songs, and people would watch them on TV." (James Poniewozik, "Wake Up and Smell the Cat Food in Your Bank Account." Time magazine, May 2, 2007)


"It is rather odd to see that the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] defines the word care as 'some kind of stuff.'
"This seems at first glance to be a rather nonspecific definition to find in what is arguably the greatest dictionary ever created. But it is actually very specific—just a bit archaic. The word stuff has had a variety of meanings through the ages, and at the time that this definition was written, in 1888, it referred to (among other things) 'a woollen fabric' or 'material for the gown worn by a junior counsel.'"
(Source: Ammon Shea, "Dated Definitions." The New York Times, Aug. 12, 2009)

Archaisms and Register

"It should be added . . . that there is a problem with the identification of archaism, since 'archaisms' are sometimes not archaic in the register in which they are used. For example, 'thee' and 'thou' are not archaic forms in a certain type of poetic register; they are archaic only in relation to our contemporary day-to-day speech. Thus the use of an archaism can be interpreted as either conforming to a register or looking back to the past (or both). . . . Only by using a dictionary such as the OED, which is a historical dictionary, giving the meanings of words over time, will you be able to find out whether certain words were current or archaic at the time of writing."​ ​
(Source: Martin Montgomery et al., Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature, 3rd ed. Routledge, 2007)

The Lighter Side of Archaisms

Frank Rossitano: Yo Tray, we got a problem.

Tracy Jordan as President Thomas Jefferson: Pray, who be this Tracy Jordan thou speakest of?

Frank: Eh, President Jefferson, we got a problem.

Tracy: Speaketh.

Frank Rossitano: That horse ate your wig.

Tracy: Well, stand guard by his rump and await it in his droppings.
(Source: Judah Friedlander and Tracy Morgan in "Corporate Crush." 30 Rock, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Archaism (Words and Syntax)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Archaism (Words and Syntax). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Archaism (Words and Syntax)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).