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?

  • 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"? Jun 7, 2011 at 4:06
  • Neil, yes, I mean exactly this.
    – Dan Ganiev
    Jun 7, 2011 at 4:32
  • An example is flied The OED lists it as obsolete, but still a word that can be used as the past tense of fly. Oct 25, 2019 at 22:23
  • 1
    Here at SE English Language & Usage, when you should use archaic and obsolete terms is when you're comfortable with them. If you posed the same Question somewhere like SE English Language Learning, you might expect an Answer like "When you're sure you understand the difference between those terms and their modern equivalents…" Broadly, no-one should use archaic or obsolete terms without first being happy to explain why… Sep 27, 2020 at 22:22

7 Answers 7


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According to the Standard English section of the M-W preface, archaic words are older, perhaps at least a century out-of-date and used only for a deliberately old-fashioned effect in modern times, while dated words went out of style more recently.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.

  • 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 :)
    – Dan Ganiev
    Jun 7, 2011 at 11:21
  • 1
    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, 2011 at 14:46

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.


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.


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.


Sometimes there are no modern variants of an archaic word. For example "the day after tomorrow" is long and I use "overmorrow" all the time.

As I always tell my learners context always matters.


There are parts of the country where older words are still spoken words like "betwixt" or "beseech"..just to name a few. Some old words are said but not often written such when someone may ask.."what ye doing?".

So there is still a place for older words here and there. Many words we use every day are very, very old. One word that I've heard from time to time that is very old is the word yonder. It is used when telling someone where something is. An example would be the gas can is down your by the shed. Well I got to go, see y'all in the morrow.


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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