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I understand that essentially a word is "archaic" if it is old and not really used much today. What I'm interested in is if there is something quantifiable that makes a word archaic or not. For example,

  • Must it be at least so many years old (e.g. I wouldn't call "golly" archaic, but I would call it old and out of use)?
  • Must it currently not have a use that is superseded by a different word (e.g. "fortnight" always seemed archaic to me, but there is no modern word that replaces it, which might be why dictionaries do not list it as such)?
  • Apparently the replacement word does not have to be newer (e.g. "to" predates "unto"), which certainly confuses things.

What are the quantifiable measures that make a word "archaic" and according to what authority?

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    This NGram suggests Americans started preferring once every two weeks over once a fortnight about fifty years ago, but that hardly justifies callinng it "archaic". Particularly when if you switch to the BrE corpus on that link, you'll see that fortnight remains very much the preferred usage. Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 16:51
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    @FumbleFingers So the British still use it regularly. That's useful in determining why it is not considered archaic.
    – user39425
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 1:04
  • 'Obsolete' is an interesting dictionary category. OED never deletes words/senses once included, but one wonders why other dictionaries still retain some. Reminds me of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary's offering for 'mirbane': << [mirbane is] apparently a meaningless word >>. But they said they kept 'myristicivorous' out because it wasn't used very much!? Commented Feb 26 at 16:13
  • @FumbleFingers That data re supposed AmE preference for "fortnight" in the 1970s and earlier is spurious.
    – TimR
    Commented Feb 26 at 19:54
  • @TimR: I don't understand the point of your comment. If you have some reason why you think what that NGram seems to reflect is false, please share it with us. Otherwise all you seem to be saying is you don't endorse how the majority of Americans have shifted their usage preferences over the past century. Commented Feb 26 at 19:59

3 Answers 3

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I don't think there is a specific authority for determining that a word or saying is 'officially' archaic. As for everyday language usage is the main determinant and the more reliable dictionaries can offer the best indications.

Archaic:

  • (of a linguistic form) commonly used in an earlier time but rare in present-day usage except to suggest the older time, as in religious rituals or historical novels. Examples: thou; wast; methinks; forsooth.

Archaic words:

  • These words are no longer in everyday use or have lost a particular meaning in current usage but are sometimes used to impart an old-fashioned flavour to historical novels, for example, or in standard conversation or writing just for a humorous effect. Some, such as hotchpotch, reveal the origin of their current meaning, while others reveal the origin of a different modern word, as with gentle, the sense of which is preserved in gentleman. Some, such as learn and let, now mean the opposite of their former use.

List of words.

(from ODO)

Archaic words or phrases:

  • Words and phrases that were used regularly in a language, but are now less common are archaic. Such words and phrases are often used deliberately to refer to earlier times. For instance, the pronoun 'thou', which is very rarely used nowadays is an archaism, which is sometimes used to suggest biblical language or a dialect.

(using.english.com)

Archaic Diction: Definition & Examples

  • Have you ever read the works of Shakespeare or maybe an older version of the Bible? Doubtlessly you encountered a lot of words like 'shalt,' 'maketh,' 'thou,' or 'thine.' If words like these sound old and dusty, that's because they are. Such terms are examples of archaic diction, or archaisms, which describes words, phrases, or pronunciations that are obsolete or outdated in current usage.

(study.com/academy)

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  • Well this didn't really tell me anymore than I already knew. +1 anyway for the effort. I figure that people who write dictionaries probably have a method they apply before they decide a word or phrase is archaic. I would think at least, the phrase must be a certain number of years out of common use.
    – user39425
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 0:53
  • @user39425 You would be mistaken. There's no arbitrary cutoff and there's no criterion for "common use".
    – lly
    Commented Feb 26 at 11:07
  • I think the fact that archaic words are still used in old-sounding texts is important. Someone could write a novel today and use "dost thou" or "beginneth", and that would be them used today, but they would still be archaic. Terms could even be used as a brand name or book title and enjoy wide currency, but if they were restricted to that use, they would still be archaic. So you can't come up with a rule like "if it's used in the last 50 years it can't be archaic".
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 26 at 12:50
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I understand that essentially a word is "archaic" if it is old and not really used much today.

You'd be mistaken. The OED is correct in noting as the original and primary sense

Marked by the characteristics of an earlier period; old-fashioned, primitive, antiquated...

The important thing here is that it isn't about the quantifiable data on frequency over time.

The important thing is the way the word feels to most users. It's entirely arbitrary and subject to change.

Ethel might be centuries old, feel dated or archaic because it was more common among our grandmothers and then fell out of common use making us think of grandmothers when we hear it, and then return to fashionable current use when a pop star or anime trying to be archaic ends up making it cool and interesting again.

Archaic is steampunk for language. It's needless and kinda clunky, but it's not entirely obsolete because its clunkiness is endearing to at least some speakers.

More broadly,

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.

but again there's absolutely no objective criterion like you're asking for. It's only archaic when it feels that way and it stops being archaic once that feeling stops or once it drops entirely from regular use.

I wouldn't call "golly" archaic, but I would call it old and out of use

That's why most dictionaries have a dated note. You think ye olde England is entirely alien and its terms archaic but feel ye olde Americana is still relatable. That's entirely arbitrary. "Golly" is archaic to a zoomer, in the same way they have literally no sense of what a public rotary dial payphone is or why anyone would ever need one.

according to what authority

Well, the OED kinda earned that position, so them... but then it went digital and then it screwed up its user interface, so... not them or anyone else in the near future.

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Who can say if a word is archaic or not? In England we would certainly use fortnight as often as "two weeks". I am astonished to find that some Americans think of it as archaic. I would say whilst in preference to while in some circumstances (You can't say "I have not done that for a whilst" but you can say "I did something whilst watching TV"). I still say Highth in preference to height even though it is now considered archaic. New words are being coined all the time and new editions of dictionaries obviously want to include them. This means losing some words to make room for them. That does not mean the other words do not exist anymore. I find it odd when an American says I did that "one time" or "two times" we would always say once or twice. Are these words also thought archaic there?

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    It's very easy to understand if a word is archaic/obsolete or not. First of all, if you saw it in print, you may have to guess its meaning. Secondly you would rarely, if ever, hear it in speech. Thirdly it will probably been superseded by an easier equivalent term. For example, betwix, how often do you come across that?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 26 at 11:28
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    Yes I am fine with betwixt but note there is a "t" at the end.
    – John Hill
    Commented Feb 26 at 11:39
  • I remember Pat Boone recorded a song 'twixt twelve and twenty in the 50's
    – John Hill
    Commented Feb 26 at 11:42
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    Betwix sometimes an apostrophe is added betwix' see also "betwix and between" greensdictofslang.com/entry/37zjiwq
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 26 at 12:57
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    'Who can say if a word is archaic or not?' Dictionary usage panels certainly have a better claim than most as they analyse usage trends. They don't add caveats without reasonable grounds. Of course, different usage panels will not always reach the same conclusions. // Not all protologisms are accepted into various dictionaries, and different dictionaries (other than OED) will discard entries at different times as being obsolete.. Commented Feb 26 at 16:18

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