What is an Obsolete Word?
Definition and Examples
From thoughtco.com by Richard Nordquist
Updated April 12, 2017
Obsolete word is a temporal label commonly used by lexicographers (that is, editors of dictionaries) to indicate that a word (or a particular form or sense of a word) is no longer in active use in speech and writing.
"In general," notes Peter Meltzer, "the difference between an obsolete word and an archaic word is that, although both have fallen into disuse, an obsolete word has done so more recently" (The Thinker's Thesaurus, 2010).
The editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2006) make this distinction:
Archaic. [T]his label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is only sporadic evidence in print after 1755 . . ..
Obsolete. [T]his label is attached to entry words and senses for which there is little or no printed evidence since 1755.
In addition, as Knud Sørensen points out, "it sometimes occurs that words which have become obsolete in Britain continue to be current in the United States (compare Amer. Engl. fall and Brit. Engl. autumn)" (Languages in Contact and Contrast, 1991).
Examples and Observations
"Illecebrous [ill-less-uh-brus] an obsolete word meaning 'attractive, alluring.' From a Latin word meaning 'to entice.'"
(Erin McKean, Totally Weird and Wonderful Words. Oxford University Press, 2006)
"The underlying meaning of mawkish is 'maggotish.' It was derived from a now obsolete word mawk, which meant literally 'maggot' but was used figuratively (like maggot itself) for a 'whim' or 'fastidious fancy.' Hence mawkish originally meant 'nauseated, as if repelled by something one is too fastidious to eat.' In the 18th century the notion of 'sickness' or 'sickliness' produced the present-day sense 'over-sentimental.'"
(John Ayto, Word Origins, 2nd ed. A & C Black, 2005)
"Mudslinging and muckraking--two words commonly connected with the pursuit of an elected office and the flotsam the campaigns leave in their wake.
"Voters seem fairly familiar with the term used to describe malicious or scandalous attacks against opponents, but the latter 'm' word may be new for some people. It is an obsolete word describing a tool used to rake muck or dung and used in reference to a character in John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress --'the Man with the Muck-rake' who rejected salvation to focus on filth."
(Vanessa Curry, "Don’t Muck It Up, and We Won’t Rake It." The Daily Herald [Columbia, TN], April 3, 2014)|
Samuel Johnson on Obsolete Words
- "Obsolete words are admitted when they are found in authors not obsolete, or when they have any force or beauty that may deserve revival."
(Samuel Johnson in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, 1755)
- "[Samuel] Johnson accommodates 'obsolete' terms to help his readers understand writers like Francis Bacon, Spenser and Shakespeare, and sometimes he suggests they should be salvaged from oblivion. . . . One example is 'manurance,' a term he has found in Spenser, meaning 'agriculture' or 'cultivation.' It is 'an obsolete word, worthy of revival.'"
(Henry Hitchings, Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. Picador, 2005)
Subjective Judgments: Griefsome in the OED
Back From the Dead: Revived Words
The Lighter Side of Obsolete Words: Words Ending in -gry
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