On the Topic of Archaic Words

First of all: I want to say that archaic words are in no way taboo. There is no problem with the words themselves: the problems often stem from the consequences of said words. Archaic words are holdovers from a time when English was much more beautifully and eloquently spoken: as such, they deserve our respect.

I could probably guess your first objection to archaic words: they sound odd to the modern audience, and they’re not easily understood by many. This fear is mostly unfounded, as archaic language is often less convoluted and more akin to a Onomatopoeia, given that more people were ignorant of the arts of writing and therefore speech was used far more often. Plus, if your readers are puzzled by the words you use, they can just put their computer search bar or phone web browser to use.

But herein lies the difficulty, and the first of our aforementioned problems: readers can quickly get overwhelmed by too many archaic words. If a reader has to look up three different words in the same paragraph, odds are they’re still on the first page. If you don’t believe that someone can use plain English and still not have English-reading readers understand them, try reading Immanuel Kant. (Not in the German, the old English translation) You get the point: keep the number of archaic numbers to an absolute minimum, like 2-3 words per hundred pages.

Archaic words can often “get you in the mood”. They sound romantic and heroic, like they were another language from a far-away land. They can make you sound quite witty. They provoke you to put more in your writing. That’s problem number two: archaic words always tempt you to put in more archaic words, thus inevitably (okay, not quite inevitably) leading back to problem number one.

To fix this, don’t focus on adding in more archaic words. Rather, focus on the most appropriate word for the time. Archaic words can be very niche, you’ll find; just make sure that you understand them well enough to put them in when it’s appropriate (which is only a few times).

Then there’s your classic writer blunder: using a word the meaning of which you don’t completely understand. Archaic words (if they’re not used proverbially, that is) are not often understood and do need to be looked up from time to time. Something all (or at least most) writers do is using a word for the feel of it, rather than the meaning. This is not really a problem, but it is of course embarrassing when you use the word buttress for an insult (it’s really an old word for a supporting part of the building).

Whether or not your readers are familiar with the words you’re using, it is imperative that at least the author is familiar with the words he/she is using. Come to that, if you find yourself using words that you don’t know the meaning to, regardless of whether it’s old or new, look it up. You’ve got to be 100% sure about every word that you use.

But probably your biggest problem with using archaic words is not any of these: it’s the connection with epic literature. If you’re any kind of good writer, you’ve got to have read the greats (and if you haven’t, get on it). That’s the original plays of Shakespeare, Sophocles, Charles Dickens, the whole nine yards.

The problem (okay, not problem, as in it wasn’t a problem for them but it probably will be for you) with those works was that they often relied on over-dramatized language, spurred on by archaic words, to help get the point across. This made their work extremely entertaining to the audiences which they had in their day.

Times change. And with it, so does style and audience. You need to develop your own style, and learning too many archaic words (and exclusively reading Dickens) can narrow your view of writing until your work is barely readable because of all the romanticism you’ve adopted. Never, ever take the style of authors long dead as a pointer in your own.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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