According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, archaic (adj.) means “having the characteristics of the language of the past and surviving chiefly in specialized uses“, “of, relating to, or characteristic of an earlier or more primitive time“, and “of or belonging to the early or formative phases of a culture or a period of artistic development“.
The origins of archaic stems from the French word archaïque which stems from the Greek words arkhaikos, from arkhaios, which stems from arkhē. Arkhē means “beginning“.
In literature the term archaism refers to “the use of archaic diction or style” (Merriam-Webster) which basically means words, phrases, or thoughts that are considered old or outdated. A similar term associated with archaism is ancient and classic.
An example of archaism could be the usage of the words “thy“, “thou“, and”thine” which were the informal ways of saying “you” back in early Modern English. A famous literature example is seen in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. In Juliet’s speech she uses the archaic form of “you” when she says:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?Shakespeare (The Poetry Foundation)
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy:
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot
Nor arm nor face nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Shakespeare commonly used “thee”, “thy”, and “thou” in his playwriting, sonnets, and other writings. In fact, he is considered to be one of modern English’s largest contributors to various words and phrases that changed the language.
(Fun Fact: We can thanks Shakespeare for the word “puppy“! )
Overall, archaic means old fashioned and/or outdated, especially in writing style. Though they may not be used or considered modern today, archaic words and phrases can still provide cultural insight and a rich appreciation for the early modern language (in this case English).
Know any “archaic” words? Comment below!