- Books, Literature, and Writing
10 Amazingly Archaic English Words
English, as a diverse global language with a long history, has developed and evolved over the years into something that would now be virtually unrecognisable to the early speakers who built the language upon Germanic foundations, gradually merging runic letters with Latin ones until the language that we know today was born. This news may not exactly be anything new, although it might come as a slight surprise to learn that many words still in common use have undergone significant spelling changes over time in accordance with fluctuations in pronunciation and the addition and exclusion of certain letters from the alphabet. Still more baffling, perhaps, is the number of archaic words that you'll likely have come across in old pieces of writing, perhaps not so foreign that you're entirely unable to contextualise them or to grasp their meanings, yet odd enough for you to understand that they have largely fallen into disuse. The rapidity with which words come into and fall out of vogue is testament to the livelihood of speech and the people who create it, and certainly provides evidence of the complexity of language itself, a point particularly illustrated by the following list of ten archaic English words:
'Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took' (Sonnet 47: 1).
- Betwixt: A rather well known term as far as archaic words go, betwixt means between, and makes frequent appearances in old literature, including Shakespeare. Although its usage has significantly declined over the last couple of centuries, betwixt developed from Old English, and is still often used for archaic effect today.
- Gadzooks: This one is an exclamation that was used as a mild oath, unsurprisingly (considering the frequency with which religious figures are used to substitute for stronger expletives) developing from the phrase 'God's hooks'. It was in vogue in the 17th-century, where it was perhaps particularly popular due to the extreme religious attitudes that condemned any casual references to God as blasphemous.
'Great business must be wrought ere noon' (Macbeth: III.5.22).
- Ere: Another rather well known archaic word, ere means before, and often made appearances in words like erelong, meaning, you guessed it, before long. It seems to have developed from a combination of Old English, Dutch, and Germanic sources, but has of course fallen largely into disuse today.
- Lackaday: Another exclamation that was popular in the 17th-century, although this time primarily expressing regret or grief, lackaday may have developed from the phrase alack-a-day, essentially conveying regret about the day, and later, perhaps, regret in general.
- Natheless: If you saw the similarity and therefore predicted a connection between this word and nevertheless, I commend you. Although natheless may have been entirely consumed by words like nevertheless and notwithstanding, and although it might look rather foreign to the eyes of a modern English speaker, this word was part of the general Middle English vocabulary, having developed from a similar word that existed in Old English.
'I would fain exercise some better faculty than that of fierce speaking; fain find nourishment for some less fiendish feeling than that of sombre indignation' (Jane Eyre: Chapter 4).
- Fain: Another word to make frequent appearances in Shakespeare, fain essentially means pleased, willing, or gladly, and is most likely a progression of the Old English fægen, of the same meaning. A compact and succinct word, its tumble into disuse may appear odd or even unfortunate, but is, nevertheless, a testament to the constant fluctuations and developments experienced by languages around the globe.
- Prithee: If you've ever read Shakespeare, you're bound to recognise this popular 16th-century exclamation, expressing either a wish or simply a polite request. It seems to be a rendition of the phrase, 'I pray you,' and was used in a similar sense, often inserted for emphasis before a request.
'Fie, fie! Unknit that threat'ning unkind brow/And dart not scornful glances from those eyes/To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor' (The Taming of the Shrew: V.2.145-147).
- Fie: Whilst now often employed to generate comedic effect, fie was once used to express disgust and disapproval, and probably developed over the centuries from Latin and Old French. Again a rather neat, succinct word, its dismissal from the language, like so many other exclamative oaths, may have a lot to do with the rapidity with which the toleration of expletives and levels of acceptable words and curses fluctuate.
- Sooth: It rhymes with truth and believe it or not, that is precisely what this word means. Often appearing as forsooth, meaning 'in truth' or 'indeed', it is another word that formed from Germanic, Old English origins and that appeared widely in Shakespeare, before falling into relative archaism in modern times.
- Usward: This one is actually quite amusing and helpful, although perhaps not strictly necessary, likely explaining its decline from the English language. Seemingly originating sometime during the 14th-century, usward, as you may have concentrated all your efforts into discovering, means 'toward us'. Although this is obviously the acceptable phrase to now use, it does seem slightly less succinct (and less creative) than the archaic usward.
So there we have it, ten fascinating English words that, despite once being common place, have now become obsolete, preserved primarily in old works or in modern gimmicks. Perhaps somewhat sad, yet nevertheless a natural process of the evolution and development of language, I hope this list has provided some insight into the flexibility of the words that we speak every day.