[Lexicog] archaic entries

John Roberts dr_john_roberts at SIL.ORG
Tue Feb 14 09:59:27 UTC 2006


These are good suggestions. I agree that "obsolete" and "archaic" are valid 
notions of word usage and I also agree it would be better to have clear 
definitions of these terms. But I would question your notion of "archaic". 
Dictionary makers seem to make a distinction between words that were in 
common usage long ago but still survive in the contemporary language and 
call them "archaic" vs. words that were in common usage by older speakers of 
the language but are not used commonly by younger speakers. These are called 
"old-fashioned" or "dated".

An example of the former in English would be "betwixt". This word is used in 
Biblical/Shakespearian/poetical literature and that is why the meaning 
survives. But it was also in common usage in some Southern dialects of the 
US up until the 19th century. It has been out of common usage for maybe 200 
years. So it has been recognized as an old or archaic word even by the 
oldest living English speaker. But compare this with "wireless" (originally 
"wireless set"), for example, which is a word coined at the beginning of the 
20th century and was still in common usage when I was young. There seems to 
me to be a quantitative difference between "betwixt" and "wireless". 
"betwixt" has been out of common usage beyond the birthdate of the oldest 
living English speaker, whereas "wireless" has not. The distinction I am 
trying to get at is that somehow "wireless" is still part of the living 
language, whereas "betwixt", although the meaning is known by speakers of 
English, is not part of the living language any more. Thus I would prefer to 
call "wireless" "old-fashioned" or "dated" rather than "archaic".

But I can see there would be a practical problem in making such a 
distinction between "archaic" and "old-fashioned" for languages that do not 
have a long literary history. You would have to rely on the testimony of 
speakers as to whether such and such a word was considered "archaic" when 
they were young. This would probably apply to words found only in songs and 
poetry or taboo language.

John Roberts

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