What Is an Archaism?

Definition of "Archaism"

An archaism is an archaic word or spelling. In other words, archaisms are words that have gone out of use in modern language. Nowadays, their use is usually for impact, comic effect, or portraying a sense of the old fashioned.

Archaisms are also seen in idioms and proverbs, which can "preserve" them. For example:
  • She doth protest too much.
  • To thine own self be true.

Table of Contents

  • Easy Examples of Archaisms
  • Real-Life Examples of Archaisms
  • Why Archaisms Are Important
  • Test Time!
examples of archaisms

Easy Examples of Archaisms

Here is a list of some common archaisms with their meanings (or approximate meanings) in today's language:
ArchaismMeaning Today
alackexpression of regret
anonat once
erewhileuntil now
fieexpression of disapproval
gadzooksmild expression of surprise
harkto listen
hitherto here
meseemsit seems to me
methinksI think
nowisenot at all
thereintointo it
thitherto there
totherthe other
whencesoeverfrom any place
whitherto what place
whithersoeverto any place
wistto know
yedeto go
yoicksexpression of surprise
yonover there

Real-Life Examples of Archaisms

The shaded words in the following quotations are archaisms now but not when they were used:
  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks. (William Shakespeare's Hamlet, written circa 1600)
  • (Methinks translates as I think.)
  • But whence does that gas originate? (Jane Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, written circa 1805)
  • (Whence translates as from where.)
  • There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. (Old English proverb with its roots in the 2nd century AD)
  • (Twixt or betwixt means between.)
The shaded words in these next quotations were archaisms when they were written. They have been used to achieve specific effects:
  • That will be Victoria's hardest battle, methinks: to overturn her image of having more money than taste or talent. (Fashion Journalist Liz Jones in 2008)
  • (The archaism adds impact.)
  • Every year, Mother Nature challenges us to a game of hide and seek. The fun begins as we search hither and yon through our medley of vineyards. (Wine grower Malcolm Leask in 2012)
  • (Hither and yon best translates as here and there. These archaisms add a sense of fun.)
  • Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go. (American novelist James Baldwin in 1953)
  • (The archaism portrays a sense of the old fashioned and an air of wisdom. Technically, from whence is a tautological error. It literally means from from where.)
Even though archaisms are words no longer in common usage, some have survived by virtue of being embedded in commonly used terms.
  • With this ring I thee wed.
  • (a line from the wedding ceremony)
  • THIS AGREEMENT (hereinafter referred to as the "Agreement")...
  • (common jargon in a legal contract)
  • To thine own self be true.
  • (proverb)

Why Archaisms Are Important

Archaisms are rare in business writing. In creative writing, they can be used for impact, fun (e.g., comic effect), or portraying a sense of the old fashioned.
  • Methinks not! (Adds impact)
  • The Yorkshire Tea factory is just through yonder snicket. (Adds fun)
  • Hark the ghostly wails. (Adds a sense of the old fashioned)

Key Point

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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