Well, it happens to us all, doesn’t it? But I’m thinking more of how antiquity of language is indicated in dictionaries.
For a clue I was writing this week, I was looking at two potential synonyms. Chambers helpfully marked one as ‘archaic’ and the other as ‘obsolete’. Was that the same thing? Flipping through the dictionary while checking this week’s puzzle for the site I also came across ‘rare’ and ‘historical’. What do each of these terms imply?
I guess this won’t be resolvable, and it may ultimately come down to the individual lexicographers who have worked on Chambers over the years. I recall (and I’m not claiming correctly…) an entry for PARLANCE that said “obsolete except in the phrase ‘common parlance'”. So the word is uncommon, except in a phrase where it is prefaced by the word ‘common’? I imagine linguists and other academic wordsmiths find things like that uproarious after a fourth or fifth beer.
My own classification – based on what I’ve seen over the years – would be:
RARE: pretty straightforward – the word is not dead yet, but you won’t see it often.
ARCHAIC: a word that hasn’t been used regularly for quite some time, but it hasn’t got the message yet. ‘Varlet’ feels like a good example for this category: you wouldn’t generally set about calling someone a ‘varlet’ these days, except in some form of exaggeration – but you know what is meant. There are degrees of archaism: ‘varlet’ is quite near the surface, but it may well sink and sink until it drops into the next category of
OBSOLETE: here we’re looking particularly at our friend Mr Spenser, whose coinages crop up with ‘(obsolete)’ all the time unless Chambers has actually named him as the culprit directly. Even here, most of them don’t look totally beyond interpretation, but would you really spell them that way?
Further back and you’re in territories where Chambers ventures rarely – the earliest versions of English where any resemblance to the contemporary language appears only as glints and glimmers.
HISTORICAL: this seems to be used when a word has a specific relevance to an historical event or object. You know the sort of thing: GANDERPACK is these days used as the common name of the Greater Antilles Lesser Spotted Dogfish, but back in the eighteenth century it was the drinking-cup of Prince Oswald the Gibberer (historical).
There’s clearly a continuum for rare, through archaic, to obsolete, but calling out a word’s location thereon is tricky, and I do find the occasional word I grew up with rather insultingly being described as ‘archaic’. And it also varies from country to country – I have a desk calendar called ‘Forgotten English’ (good fun, I recommend it) which throws up some unexpected things deemed lost to the USA – ‘simper’ appeared last week. I wonder what Americans do instead.
The puzzle this week (which includes words with all four headings, I think) is an Enigmatic Variations puzzle from 2009. As for appearances in the press, I have a Times daily puzzle next Tuesday (14 November). As of this date, that is all I know of outside the regular Friday outings in the Independent.
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