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What Are Archaic Words? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Mary Beth Burns

Mary Beth has taught 1st, 4th and 5th grade and has a specialist degree in Educational Leadership. She is currently an assistant principal.

While archaic words may not be commonplace today, they once had a significant place in the English language. Come and learn about what archaic words are, who used them, as well as some examples with their definitions.

What are Archaic Words?

Did you know that 'selfie' didn't become a word until the year 2013? 'Hashtag' became a word in 2009 and 'photobomb' became a word in 2012. Just as there are constantly new words being introduced to the English language, there are also words that were once popular and are now rarely or never used. These are known as archaic words. The word archaic comes from a Greek word meaning ancient or beginning.

An example of ancient Greek texts
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Who Used Archaic Words?

The English language is always evolving and changing, so if you were to read something that has many archaic words, it might feel like you are reading a different language. It is important to keep in mind that many people that used archaic words in their work were living in a different time period. Therefore, it was much easier for the reader or audience to understand than it is for you. Take William Shakespeare, for example. He lived right after the Middle Ages ended, which went from about the year 500 to around the year 1500. Since Shakespeare wrote about 100 years after the Middle Ages, he still incorporated a lot of terms from that period in his work.

Romeo, Romeo - where for art thou, Romeo?
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Archaic words were used frequently during the Middle Ages and so Shakespeare's plays are full of them. This makes them challenging for us to understand. In fact, you can even take a class in high school or college that is solely focused on how to read and understand Shakespeare's work. Let's take a look at the first part of his famous Sonnet 18 in Romeo and Juliet:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate

With archaic words like thee, thou and hath, this can get a little tricky. In modern English, Sonnet 18 might read something like this:

Should I compare you to a summer's day?

You are more lovely and more pleasant.

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