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I'm learning the English language, and while reading Merriam-Webster I often see common words with additional "obsolete" and "archaic" descriptions added to their definitions.

When should I use them, should I use them at all, and what's the difference between these descriptions? Also, should I spend time to remember these archaic and obsolete meanings?

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Daniel, interesting question! I'm not certain what you mean by "and what's the difference between this descriptions", do you mean what's the difference between "obsolete" and "archaic"? –  Neil Fein Jun 7 '11 at 4:06
    
Neil, yes, I mean exactly this. –  Daniel Excinsky Jun 7 '11 at 4:32
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6 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

When should I use them, should I use them at all?

Probably never, unless you're writing historical fiction. Archaic and obsolete words are words that are no longer used in contemporary society, so unless you want to specifically emulate olden times, it's best just to leave them alone.

What's the difference between these descriptions?

According to the Standard English section of the M-W preface, archaic words are older, perhaps at least a century out-of-date and used only for a deliberately old-fashioned effect in modern times, while dated words went out of style more recently. Historical words are words that are still used, but only to refer to ancient things. Rare words are words that are slowly leaving the English language.

I don't see obsolete as a usage marker in my edition of M-W, but I would roughly equate it to being between archaic and dated. Obviously, your dictionary's preface should explain how obsolete would be used by their editors.

Also, should I spend time to remember these archaic and obsolete meanings?

Probably not, unless you're reading a lot of historical stuff. You can always look them up in a dictionary if you're only going to encounter them once in a while.

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I have M-W unabridged somehow compiled for Lingvo X3 dictionary software. So there is no preface, and I have to metalook the meanings of descriptions in the dictionary itself :) –  Daniel Excinsky Jun 7 '11 at 11:21
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It should be noted that a word can have a modern usage yet have an obsolesced alternate meaning. For example, the word "fantasy" is still used frequently in modern English, however, it has an alternate, obsolete meaning of an "inclination" or "desire." (Well, I guess that is still evident in one usage of the British word "fancy", which evolved from "fant'sy", however, that was the first example that popped into my head.) –  ESultanik Jun 7 '11 at 14:46
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Archaic means that a word has the flavor of old-timey language, and brings the feel of the past along with it. Archaic language is generally used infrequently and for effect when it is. I think that in English-speaking countries, the most common uses of archaic language are when religious texts are being quoted, or when older literature is being quoted--or performed, as in the case of Shakespeare or other period plays. Here's a fuller definition at Merriam-Webster.

Obsolete is a cousin of sorts to the word "archaic", and using an obsolete word will certainly make what you're saying seem esoteric and strange--but an obsolete word is a word that's no longer used at all. One should use such words with extreme caution: people listening to you or reading your writing may not know what you're talking about, unless you very carefully provide good context for them to figure out the meaning of what you're communicating.

I wouldn't prioritize learning obsolete and archaic words until you get more advanced in English, and I don't think anyone's going to fault you for failing to know archaic words.

If you want to take a crash course in archaic language, dipping into the plays of William Shakespeare would be a good start, as they are readily available, but prepare to be extremely bewildered! There exist translations of both of these with notes to explain the more perplexing turns of phrase.

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The reason certain words have meanings that are "obsolete" and "archaic" is because it is not commonly used, and not commonly understood in today's soceity. If you want yourself to be understood, you wouldn't particularly want to use those words.
However, you could remember these "obsolete" and "archaic" meanings if you really want to understand English and its history.

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You should use obsolete or archaic words when:

  1. No other word will serve (as in a scholarly piece about history or linguistics, for example).

  2. You want to confuse your audience or make them laugh.

  3. You want to sound pretentious or pedantic.

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+1 for point 3! –  user1579 Jun 7 '11 at 12:28
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+1 for point 3 and +1 to @Rhodri for having plus-oned for point 3. –  Erik Burigo Jun 7 '11 at 14:46
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It's always a good idea to remember that Merriam-Webster is American and not a source of pure British English, although many words are spelt the same. Luckily, Noah Webster didn't manage to completely wreck English spelling, so Americans are still able to be understood in the English speaking world.

The English language has changed over the centuries and is still undergoing transformation, with new words being adopted and old words disappearing into obscurity. The meanings of some words have been changed due to them being coined by groups and are now accepted to have completely different meanings. Wicked is one example of modern usage in the younger circles of society. When I was young, it was fine to be happy and gay.

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-1 for an answer which doesn't answer the question and is patronising. –  Colin Fine Jun 7 '11 at 13:36
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I wouldn't say that no one should ever use archaic words; sometimes you do need a particular nuance. But I would say that somebody learning a language (any language) is not well-equipped to judge these cases, so it is better to stick to the simpler, more-straightforward word choices until you are more comfortable with the subtleties of the language. Every time I have tried to use an "advanced" word in the second language I've been learning, I've made things worse rather than better.

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