Using Archaisms: A Question of Good Taste
When and how should writers use archaic words? In what context, for what use, and to what effect?
Some, even most people in the writing/publishing business, will tell you that you should avoid archaic words altogether. And so you should, if you cannot be sure that you are using them artfully. But this is true of all words; you should never use a word that you cannot use artfully, if art is what you are making. On the other hand, if you can use a word artfully that is not in favor, you should not be cornered into unnaturally restricting your language, in the feeling that some word is the literary equivalent of “not cool.” This is how people learn to behave in that modern-day slave society known as High School, but slavish behavior is not appropriate to anyone aspiring to art.
As you can see, I stand apart, in considered opinion, from those people who will tell you that archaism is embarrassing or unspeakable or unpublishable. I do not even agree with people who claim that obsolete words are “dead” – and that is an almost universal opinion.
Like Jehovah indicated about the valley of dry bones, the deadness of the archaic or obsolete word or phrase is not a terribly solid fact. It is Jehovah that makes bones live, whether they are currently living or not; and it is the human mind that makes words live, whether they are currently in common use or not.
If you can make an archaism live, by all means do us all a favor and get to it. Much that has been lost from the language, or fallen out of favor, has deprived of us concepts necessary to the well-furnished mind.
Let us take the classic example of addressing God as “thee” in prayers. I sigh whenever people do it out of the mistaken notion that it’s more respectful. I grew up on the King James Bible, and you see quite clearly there that ‘thee’ is often used disrespectfully (“Get thee behind me, Satan”) and ‘You’ quite respectfully. The secret is that at one time English, like Asian languages now, had two forms of address, the formal and the informal. ‘Thee’ is the informal. ‘You’ is formal.
This is why it is so touching to hear the Lord addressed as ‘Thou, O Lord’. In the same breath, the worshipper adores the Highest, and approaches him as a familiar friend. It is no good dismissing this as not really belonging to your own language. You need to learn this. You need to feel it the moment you hear the words. Why? Because when the words are lost, part of the tradition of English-language piety is lost. And that’s unbearable.
More personally, once this comes alive for you, it will be impossible for your to suppress it from your usage. It would be lexicide.
That is the gist of my Reason. My reasons are as follows.
1st, that the word has a dual nature; the word is both an extension of mind, and a product of convention. But of these two, the mind is greater, and generates convention.
By ‘extension’ I don’t mean addition. I mean a reaching out, a lengthening. The word is a special movement that the mind makes in an outward direction. No one mind ever standardized a word alone, but if you have a mind, you are a member of the body that created the convention. Don’t bow to convention; make convention bow to you.
2nd, that in poetry especially, but in any literary art, the proper aim of the artist is to go beyond mundane speech, to do all that the language can do beautifully and well. It is in art especially that the unused and rare portions of the language become accessible.
Therefore, when I see people trying to rule out certain parts of the language as inappropriate for art, not because they lack the qualities that make good art – beauty, breadth, history, imaginative resonance – but because people have stopped using it in every-day speech, I regard this mere peer-pressure and I do not think it is helping the art form at all. No, thanks.
3rd, that the relationship of art and word-usage is such that if art restricts itself to those words in common current usage, the whole language spirals into increasing restriction and inaccessibility; but if literary art opens and re-opens avenues of expression, then the language as a whole will spiral upward into richness and breadth.
Common speech is shaped by literary art; it cannot accommodate itself to what it must produce. When the father tries to fit into the clothes of the child, the only thing that can result is shredded clothing.
And “shredded clothing” is a good description of most literary art that is getting published now.
Here are my rules for using archaic words and expressions. These rules are not absolute codes, but rather my idea of “good taste” – a guideline for writing elegant and readable prose that incorporates archaisms.
A. Life. As indicated above, a word is alive if it lives in your mind – even if it doesn’t live in anyone else’s. How do you know if it does? Quite simply, it lives if you know its meaning and if its proper use occurs naturally and immediately to your mind in a given situation, without your having to dredge it up (or look it up.) How does this happen? It happens by being raised on great literature instead of electronic entertainment. If you weren’t, don’t knock it.
B. Consistency. If an archaism appears in a work of literary art, then it should appear in a context where it will seem natural and contextually organic. For instance, if you write a prayer-as-poem, and use “Thee” to address God, you probably shouldn’t refer to him as a The Totally Unique Ultra-Cool Sky Dude in the following line. On the other hand, as I am seeing in Robert Frost, a little archaism of this kind melds into some very contemporary (but not trendy-sounding) conversation easily – because for some internal organic reason it belongs there. (It belongs there because even though people pretend to abhor this sort of thing, they understand it perfectly well and have it established in their minds in connection to specific ideas, images, and feelings.)
C. Take pity on your reader. While I object to people looking down on language that they understand with perfect clarity just because it’s out of fashion, I do try to avoid obscurity and frustrating density just for the sake of using some phrase that used to be in.
D. Try to distinguish between great language that has fallen out of favor, and language that is dated because it was trendy in its own time (and has perhaps been preserved in a favorite old book.) This does go back to A – the best way to distinguish between great language and trendy language is to read a lot of stuff from many different time-periods so that the language, across time-periods, comes alive for you.
E. Take courage. You will be blackballed literarily if you follow this path, but on the other hand there is no other way for the language to be refreshed and strengthened than for artists to become living conduits from the springs of the language to their own part of the stream. It is partly for this quality of timelessness that inspiration is required.