Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

Obsolete words


Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin, coiner of “snookyookums.”

Our dictionaries are filled with hundreds of words labeled obsolete or archaic or historical. We want them there because we consult dictionaries to discover the meanings of words that are unfamiliar, and one reason that they are strange to us is because they are no longer in use.

Of course we have lots of tricks to figure out what words mean by thinking of words like the ones that puzzle us. If a monarchy is a state headed by a monarch (like, say, Norway), and a duchy is one headed by a duke or duchess (like The Grand Duchy of Fenwick in the Peter Sellers movie), then what can a satrapy be?

We’d like to have the authority of the dictionary before we buy a certificate declaring ourselves the Grand Satrap, just in case a satrap is not like monarchy or duchy but is related to contraption or claptrappy.

How’s your skill at guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words? Here are some to test yourself. Check your answers by clicking on the links.

English is filled with strange words like these, and we find them fascinating even if we never use them or even remember for long what they mean. They may be obsolete or rare or exotic, but we love them nonetheless.

Do we need them to communicate? Do we use them ever?


Our love creates difficult problems for dictionary makers, particularly now that the World Wide Web preserves and delivers words used anywhere in the world by anyone. Dictionaries used to keep words out of circulation, and someone could triumph over someone else by pointing out that some expression couldn’t be a word because it wasn’t in the dictionary.

Recently, a friend sent me an edition of a work written about 1450 and never published. It contains many words never since found in the written record like underbought. Of course we have a word in that shape, the opposite of oversold. But this word from long ago has a different meaning: to get something at a bargain price.

Celia underbought her new car and saved $10,000.

Is this word obsolete? Probably not. Just dormant. And by putting it here, we have revived it.

Do your bit to bring a word back to life today. Words (and their meanings) are there for the asking.

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