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Sometimes I use the phrase "back in the old days". I was recently in a class where the trainer kept using the phrase "olden days." Which usage is acceptable?

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Olden is itself archaic - including it in a reference to bygone times is just whimsical (bygone being another archaism, of course! :) Actually, that may not be strictly true - olden may be a (whimsical) Victorian "mock-olden" word. –  FumbleFingers Feb 14 '12 at 3:39
    
@FumbleFingers On the contrary, if you would please look at the OED entry, you’ll find that olden has a long history, and is certainly not a Victorian neologism. –  tchrist Feb 14 '12 at 14:13
    
@tchrist: I don't doubt olden has a long and venerable history - I was really just alluding to the fact that "in olden times" became comparatively popular in the second half of C19, eventually displacing the originally more common "in old times". But "in olden times" is a "set phrase", whereas "in olden days" is quite unusual, and OP had best avoid it if he doesn't want raised eyebrows. –  FumbleFingers Feb 14 '12 at 16:34
    
@FumbleFingers I completely agree that this is a set phrase, but don’t you think the set-phrase formula is “in olden XXX”, for various values of XXX including both “days” and “times”? Both seem perfectly equally normal (or abnormal) to me. I don’t perceive the times version as being any more or less common than the days version myself. But perhaps that’s just me. –  tchrist Feb 14 '12 at 16:44
    
@tchrist: "in olden days" is the least common variant with "in", and with "the", everything except "the old days" virtually flatlines. I think "in olden days" is the "set phrase", for "olden" - anything else is "errors" caused by people being unfamiliar with the usage. –  FumbleFingers Feb 14 '12 at 17:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

"Old days" is possibly more correct — but "olden days" is a common saying.

History of the phrase "olden days"

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That’s not really a very good history of the phrase. See the OED. –  tchrist Feb 14 '12 at 14:12

If one consults the OED entry for ‘olden’, one learns that ‘olden’ dates all the way back to Cursor Mundi itself, hardly a Victorian tome. It’s also in Piers Ploughman and Shakespeare.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈəʊld(ə)n/, U.S. /ˈoʊld(ə)n/

    Forms: ME holden, ME holdon, ME oldyn, ME– olden, 18 aulden (Sc.).

    Etymology: Probably originally an inflected form of old adj., although subsequently perhaps understood as showing old n.2 + -en suffix4.

Phrases similar to olden days were common in both Old and Middle English. Old English had the phrase (on) ealdum dagum (compare old adj. 9a), with dative plural ending -um . In Middle English, such phrases often preserved archaic forms. For example, from early Middle English onwards the phrase (bi) olde dawe is attested, where the noun has an archaic plural form (compare γ forms at day n.), but the adjective has the regular marked -e form. In late Middle English (bi) olden dawes, (in) holdon daw (see quots. a1400 and c1426), archaic forms of the plural noun persist (day usually having a regular plural form elsewhere in both texts), suggesting that the phrase had become a fixed formula. Their -en element could conceivably be the reflex of the Old English dative plural ending -um, accidentally not attested during the intervening period (although -en is very occasionally found as a plural inflection of this word in other senses in early Middle English); but an alternative explanation, possibly more consistent with the non-attestation of -en forms earlier, would be that the trisyllabic structure of the fixed phrasal unit was preserved by means of the replacement of unstressed -e (normally lost in this position) by -en (protected in medial position before a homorganic consonant). From fixed phrases like in olden days the word was perhaps generalized in early modern English to other contexts.

Now chiefly literary.

orig. and chiefly in olden days, olden time(s). Belonging to a past age or time; ancient, old; (also) aged.

   

  • a1400 (1325)     Cursor Mundi (Trin. Cambr.) 18100     Now com my sawes Þat I seide bi olden dawes.
  • 1401     Inquisition Misc. (P.R.O.: C 145/279/1) m. 1,     Mesuagium vocatum the Oldyn.
  • c1426     J. Audelay Poems (1931) 20     Þe goodys of hole cherche‥Þat oþer han ȝeuen in holdon daw.
  • a1500 (1376)     Langland Piers Plowman (Eaton) A. xɪ. 303    Holden [c1400 Trin. Cambr. austyn þe olde].
  • 1576     G. Gascoigne Steele Glas (Arb.) 58     In olden dayes, good kings‥Contented were, with pompes of little pryce.
  • a1616     Shakespeare Macbeth (1623) ɪɪɪ. iv. 74     Blood hath bene shed ere now, i' th' olden time.
  • 1682     S. Speed Gigantomaxia 5     A Town it has, which Fiends Inchant, Where Brideled Furies Roar and Rant, In olden times, hight Troynovant, But now 'tis London Stiled.
  • 1768     D. Garrick in False Delicacy Epil.,     In olden times your grannams unrefin'd, Ty'd up the tongue, put padlocks on the mind.
  • 1791–2     Wordsworth Descr. Sketches 147 There an old man an olden measure scanned On a rude viol.
  • 1816     Scott Tales my Landlord 1st Ser. Introd.,     A young person‥who delighted in the collection of olden tales and legends.
  • 1823     Byron Don Juan: Canto XII xliii,     Olden she was—but had been very young.
  • 1866     J. Smith Poems 205     Wi' pith o' aulden days, Sing loudly [etc.].
  • 1904     J. Conrad Nostromo i. i. 2     Many adventurers of olden time had perished.
  • 1970     M. McLuhan Let. 30 Apr. (1987) 405     The elderly love to recall and the children love to hear about the ‘olden times’.
  • 1995     M. Amis Information (1996) 434     All he could see was a single sandy suede shoe‥: the olden hushpuppy of R.C. Squires.

The proper citation for that entry is:

olden, adj.

Third edition, March 2004; online version December 2011. < http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/130964 >; accessed 14 February 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1902.

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The trivia tidbit that is missing here is that 'old' in ME was also a noun meaning old folks "the olden'' or ancient times. Send æfter þine wiue & æfter þine children, þan ᵹungen & þan olden.

It was also a plural adjective. Why does this plural form still stand when ouren (our) and eyen (eyes) fell out? (But oxen stayed.) It may be owing to the fact that it was both a plural noun and a plural adjective form ... or it just may be that folks liked it!

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(Literary) If you refer to a period in the past as the olden days, you feel affection for it. We had a delightful time talking about the olden days on his farm. ...the nicely painted railways of olden times.

tip

  1. In the olden days or in olden days means in the past. In the olden days the girls were married young.

by the app of dictionary.com

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