What is an Obsolete Word?

Definition and Examples

Obsolete word is a temporal label commonly used by lexicographers (that is, editors of dictionaries) to indicate that a word (or a particular form or sense of a word) is no longer in active use in speech and writing.

"In general," notes Peter Meltzer, "the difference between an obsolete word and an archaic word is that, although both have fallen into disuse, an obsolete word has done so more recently" (The Thinker's Thesaurus, 2010).

The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2006) make this distinction:

Archaic. [T]his label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is only sporadic evidence in print after 1755 . . ..

Obsolete. [T]his label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is little or no printed evidence since 1755.

In addition, as Knud Sørensen points out, "it sometimes occurs that words which have become obsolete in Britain continue to be current in the United States (compare Amer. Engl. fall and Brit. Engl. autumn)" (Languages in Contact and Contrast, 1991).

Examples and Observations

  • Illecebrous
    "Illecebrous [ill-less-uh-brus] an obsolete word meaning 'attractive, alluring.' From a Latin word meaning 'to entice.'"
    (Erin McKean, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • Mawk
    "The underlying meaning of mawkish is 'maggotish.' It was derived from a now obsolete word mawk, which meant literally 'maggot' but was used figuratively (like maggot itself) for a 'whim' or 'fastidious fancy.' Hence mawkish originally meant 'nauseated, as if repelled by something one is too fastidious to eat.' In the 18th century the notion of 'sickness' or 'sickliness' produced the present-day sense 'over-sentimental.'"
    (John Ayto, Word Origins, 2nd ed. A & C Black, 2005)
  • Muckrake
    "Mudslinging and muckraking--two words commonly connected with the pursuit of an elected office and the flotsam the campaigns leave in their wake.

    "Voters seem fairly familiar with the term used to describe malicious or scandalous attacks against opponents, but the latter 'm' word may be new for some people. It is an obsolete word describing a tool used to rake muck or dung and used in reference to a character in John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress [1678]--'the Man with the Muck-rake' who rejected salvation to focus on filth."
    (Vanessa Curry, "Don’t Muck It Up, and We Won’t Rake It." The Daily Herald [Columbia, TN], April 3, 2014)|
  • Samuel Johnson on Obsolete Words
    - "Obsolete words are admitted when they are found in authors not obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve revival."
    (Samuel Johnson in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)

    - "[Samuel] Johnson accommodates 'obsolete' terms to help his readers understand writers like Francis Bacon, Spenser and Shakespeare, and sometimes he suggests they should be salvaged from oblivion. . . . One example is 'manurance,' a term he has found in Spenser, meaning 'agriculture' or 'cultivation.' It is 'an obsolete word, worthy of revival.'"
    (Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. Picador, 2005)

Subjective Judgments: Griefsome in the OED

  • - "Griefsome was . . . labelled obsolete during the writing of the first edition of the OED. A few months later, however, one of the editors used griefsome in drafting the definition of grievesomeness ('the quality or condition of being griefsome'), as a draft proof still records. Here, intuition and usage failed to coincide; paradoxically griefsome was both obsolete (according to the label it had been given) and current (according to the usage of one of the editors). For the OED, in a pre-digital age, the problem was resolved, at least superficially, by omitting the definition. If this secured consistency, it was nevertheless at the expense of the facts of usage. The range of electronic databases available to a modern editor can, in contrast, quickly confirm that the ongoing usage of griefsome was by no means anomalous (and that the verdict of 'obsolete' was, at least at that point in lexical history, entirely unfounded)." (Lynda Mugglestone, Dictionaries: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • - "With Chopin I forget all craftsmanship of piano-playing and sink into the sweet underground of his music, into the griefsome loveliness of his deep as delicate creations." ("Heine as Musical Critic." Music: A Monthly Magazine, 1899)

Back From the Dead: Revived Words

  • "[I]t is interesting to note how often disused words are put to use again after long periods of dormancy. In numerous cases the reintroduction of an obsolete word goes hand in hand with some change of either meaning or use. . . . In contemporary economics the noun franchising 'authorization granted to an individual or group by a company to sell its products or services in a particular area,' attested since 1966, is a revival of an older word, recorded once in the sixteenth and once in the seventeenth century in the more general sense of 'investing with a franchise or privilege,' but the connection is clear enough."
    (Knud Sørensen, "On Revived Words in the OED Supplement." Languages in Contact and Contrast, ed. by Vladimir Ivir et al. Walter de Gruyter, 1991)

    The Lighter Side of Obsolete Words: Words Ending in -gry

    • "Two words in English end in -gry. One is angry. What is the other one?

      "Hungry.

      "There used to be many more English words with the -gry ending, but they have become obsolete. The puzzle often asks for a third word. The third word, a word we no longer use, is puggry. It means a scarf worn around a sun helmet. Even more interesting: There are three alternative spellings for this word--pugree, puggree, and puggaree! Another obsolete word for hungry, anhungry, remains in some dictionaries because it is quoted in Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Act I."
      (Doreen Scott-Dunne, When Spelling Matters: Developing Writers Who Can Spell and Understand Language. Pembroke, 2013)