Going, Gone

Like old soldiers, old words in the English language never die, their memory being preserved by dictionaries such as Chambers. The Big Red Book has a number of classifications for words which are not in common use, including ‘old’ and ‘rare’, but the largest groups consist of those categorized as ‘archaic’ or ‘obsolete’. There is, I think, general agreement that when such words appear in puzzles they need to be flagged by the setter, eg ‘old chestnut’ for the obsolete term FAVEL.

There seems to be a tendency among setters to treat archaisms and obsoletisms identically, but let’s consider what the two classifications mean:

  • archaic. Describes words which are ‘not absolutely obsolete but no longer in general use’; they will typically have been common at some point in the past, but that could have been a long time ago. Examples would be immeritous for ‘undeserving’ and mouldwarp for a mole.
  • obsolete. Words classified as obsolete may once have been common but are now completely out of use. Among such words are disembrangle (‘to free from dispute’) and ellops, a kind of sturgeon.

I recently saw the definition of a word shown by Chambers as ‘archaic’ being qualified in a clue by ‘dead’. This seems wrong to me – terms indicating total absence from today’s language are fine for obsolete words, but archaic ones are still hanging on in there, so although ‘once’ or ‘former’ is fine for an archaic word (or an archaic sense of a word), I don’t think ‘dead’ is valid. An ‘extinct sturgeon’ could be ELLOPS, but a MOULDWARP surely isn’t an ‘extinct mole’.

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