Definition of Archaism

An archaism is a word that is no longer in common usage, but is used for stylistic effect to mimic the sound of older language. One of the most common archaisms in English is “thee” or “thou,” which is only used in very specific contexts (such as “With this ring I thee wed”). Archaisms can also occur in grammatical constructions which are no longer commonly used. For example, “be that as it may” contains an example of archaism in the rare usage of “be,” though the phrase itself is still popular.

The word archaism comes from the Greek word ἀρχαῖος (archaîos), which means “from the beginning” or “ancient.”

Difference Between Archaism, Anachronism, and Obsolete Words

The definition of archaism and an obsolete word is very similar, as they both refer to words that have fallen out of favor in a language. However, an archaism still has some function within the language, if limited, while an obsolete word is one that is not used at all anymore.

An archaism refers only to a word that sounds old-fashioned, while an anachronism is any thing, person, or word that is out of place chronologically. An anachronism is anything that is not historically correct, like a person speaking on a phone in Elizabethan England, or a modern-day person sending a telegram. Anachronisms can be intentional—for humorous purposes, usually—or unintentional. Archaisms, meanwhile, are generally used to make language sound a bit more formal by using rare words or constructions.

Common Examples of Archaism

Many English proverbs and idioms contain archaism examples, such as the following:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Often called the Golden Rule, both the word “unto” and the grammatical constructions of starting with “do” and the linking “as you would have” are archaism examples)
  • To thine own self be true. (Originally a William Shakespeare quote, this sentence has evolved into a common English proverb, yet retains the archaism “thine”)
  • Full of vim and vigor. (“Vim” is now only used when in conjunction with “vigor”)

There are also many nursery rhymes in English which contain examples of archaism, as in the following:

The cock doth crow
To let you know,
If you be wise,
Tis time to rise.

Legal language is one form of jargon that retains many archaisms, such as in the following examples:

  • The parties hereto agree as follows…
  • This party, hereinafter referred to as wife…
  • Wife shall have the right to retain her married name or shall also have the right to return to her maiden or former name…

Significance of Archaism in Literature

Authors often use archaism examples in their works of literature to add a sense of gravity to their words. Authors who write historical fiction particularly favor using archaism examples in order to better add to the idea that their characters are living in a different era. Some authors also use archaism examples to make the reader aware that a different language is being spoken, such as in Example #2 below, from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Poets also often use archaism examples to make their lines sound more formal, and incorporate words that are not commonly used for aesthetic effect.

Examples of Archaism in Literature

Example #1

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” is full of archaism examples. Though it was published in 1845, and therefore Poe’s English would have contained words that are now archaic or obsolete, it is undeniable that he used words in this poem that he would never have used in common speech. In just this stanza Poe uses the archaic words “methought,” “nepenthe” (an anti-depressant used in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece), “quaff,” and “quoth,” to name just a few.

Example #2

“And do you like me too? Do I please thee? I will look better later.”
“Thou art very beautiful now.”
“Nay,” she said. “But stroke thy hand across my head.”

(For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was criticized by some for the archaic language he chose to use in his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is set during the Spanish Civil War. Generally, he only used these archaism examples in dialogue between the American protagonist Robert Jordan and his Spanish lover, Maria. Hemingway purposefully used these archaic constructions and words to create a style meant to mimic the sounds of Castilian Spanish. There is more formality built into the dialect of Spanish spoken in Spain, and thus Hemingway’s choice to use words like “thou,” “art” and “nay” remind the reader that a different language is being spoken by the characters.

Example #3

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost)

While this final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” does not sound overwhelmingly old-fashioned, he does incorporate the little-used words “shall” and “hence.” The choice is stylistic, as these words add to consonance, rhyme, and meter. Moreover, the words add formality to his poem.

Example #4

SUSANNA: Aye, sir, he have been searchin’ his books since he left you, sir. But he bid me tell you, that you might look to unnatural things for the cause of it.
PARRIS, his eyes going wide: No—no. There be no unnatural case here. Tell him I have sent for Reverend Hale of Beverly, and Mr. Hale will surely confirm that. let him look to medicine and put out all thought of unnatural causes here. There be none.

(The Crucible by Arthur Miller)

Arthur Miller chose to set a play during the Salem Witch Trials as a parable to show the damage of the McCarthy Era that he was living in. He didn’t try to hide this comparison much, though he used many archaism examples in the the language of The Crucible to make it sound more believably old. The play was set two and a half centuries prior to its writing, and thus Miller chose words and grammatical constructions that sounded old, such as “Aye,” “he bid me tell you,” and “there be none.”

Example #5

“I heard a Lannister always pays his debts.”
“Oh, every penny….but never a groat more. You’ll get the meal you bargained for, but it won’t be sauced with gratitude, and in the end it will not nourish you.”

(A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin)

George R. R. Martin is a contemporary author whose oeuvre is supposed to exist in a medieval fantasy version of the United Kingdom. Though the time period in which the characters live never actually existed, Martin is clever to include many real archaisms that make the reader think there is some veracity to his setting. For example, Tyrion Lannister uses the word “groat,” which was a real medieval European coin.

Test Your Knowledge of Archaism

1. Which of the following statements is the best archaism definition?
A. A word which is no longer in usage in any form in a language.
B. A word which sounds old-fashioned in a language, due to falling out of favor.
C. A person, thing, custom, belief system, etc. which is not in the correct chronological time period.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is NOT a reason that an author might want to use an example of archaism is his or her work of literature?
A. To make the language sound more formal or more old-fashioned.
B. To make it seem that a different language is being spoken than the one the work of literature is written in.
C. To make the language seem futuristic and incomprehensible.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls contains an example of archaism?
A. “Then you and me we are the same,” Maria said.
B. “And feel now. Thou hast no heart but mine.”
C. “As long as there is one of us there is both of us. Do you understand?”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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