English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

At Oxford Dictionaries Online the word alderman is marked as "chiefly historical", whereas ere is marked as "literary or archaic".

I've looked around on the ODO site, but I can't find a guide to explain the difference. To me they both mean "old and not really used any more".

How does archaic differ from historical in word definitions?

share|improve this question
So is that saying that literary and archaic are the same thing, or that they are two different possible things? – tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 13:21
I think that literary indicates something different to archaic. I could be wrong. – Matt E. Эллен Jan 3 '13 at 13:24
I would understand archaic as a synonym to pre-historic. So a use marked as historic is more recent than a use marked archaic. – Dohn Joe Jan 3 '13 at 13:30
Just a guess, and maybe I'm stating the obvious, but I would think words chiefly found in poetry (such as e'er, 'twas, e'en) would be designated as literary in the same way that other dictionaries might use the designation poetic. The ODO defines e'en as "literary form of EVEN". – J.R. Jan 3 '13 at 15:13
up vote 7 down vote accepted

An archaic word is one that is no longer in everyday use but sometimes used to impart an old-fashioned flavour, while a historical word is one used to describe a thing of the past. On the other hand, a literary word is one that is connected to literature. As can be seen, these three mean slightly different things.

share|improve this answer
Hm, and literary? Is it one or the other of archaic or historical, or both or neither? – tchrist Jan 3 '13 at 13:28
+1 Except that aldermen do still exist. – Matt E. Эллен Jan 3 '13 at 13:33
Indeed they do. But only just. – Barrie England Jan 3 '13 at 13:34
No, they certainly do exist, and not only just. – Robusto Jan 4 '13 at 16:39

I've had an email from the Oxford University Press, and this is what they say:

Archaic: very old-fashioned language, not in ordinary use at all today, but sometimes used to give a deliberately old-fashioned effect or found in works of the past that are still widely read.

Historical: still used today, but only to refer to some practice or artefact that is no longer part of the modern world, i.e. baldric or almoner.

share|improve this answer

Here are the OED definitions of those two words –

archaic, adj.

a. Marked by the characteristics of an earlier period; old-fashioned, primitive, antiquated. spec. in Archaeol., designating an early or formative period of artistic style or culture.

b. esp. of language: Belonging to an earlier period, no longer in common use, though still retained either by individuals, or generally, for special purposes, poetical, liturgical, etc. Thus the pronunciation obleege is archaic in the first case; the pronoun thou in the second.

historical, adj. and n.

1 A (a) Belonging to, constituting, or of the nature of history; in accordance with history.

1 A (b) spec. Belonging to or of the nature of history as opposed to fiction or legend.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.