Archaisms renew the language; they are the means by which language is renovated and restored to its original splendor. It is the old things that make all things new.
The “coming peril” was not Bolshevism, G.K. Chesterton said in 1927, only ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, it was “standardization by a low standard.” For Chesterton, ever the prophet, the surest way of destroying a utopia was to try to put it into practice. He knew that communism could never be anything but a tyranny and that its monstrous flaws would become evident once it had the power to expose its inherent wickedness. A far greater peril was to be found in the rise of “vulgarity,” the dumbing-down of everything to a lowest common denominator of mindless mediocrity. Today, almost a century later, we have seen the “coming peril” come to pass in every area of culture.
One of the most pernicious and culturally deadly manifestations of the peril of standardized vulgarity is in the use of language. We forget that words are never merely words but are the means by which we make sense of things. If we have fewer words we have fewer tools with which to think and with which to reason. We are left not merely speechless in the presence of reality but thoughtless. This is why our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were wise when they spoke of each person’s “word-horde.” The more words we possess in our personal “horde” the wealthier and healthier we will be. The knowledge of each word is something which personally enriches the one who possesses it. Words empower us, whereas the absence of words impoverishes us and leaves us powerless to make sense of who we are and where we fit into reality. They are the means of exchange with which we express an understanding of ourselves and the cosmos to ourselves and to others. Without such a means of exchange we isolate ourselves from reality and alienate ourselves from others. We are left bemused and confused in the presence of things that we have no way of understanding because we have no way of expressing what they are to ourselves and others.
Since each word we learn adds to the wealth of our horde, it is important for all of us to always be adding more words to our treasure chest of meaning. And this is why we should rejoice whenever we see an archaism in an essay or a book that we’re reading, or in a poem.
According to the anything-but-archaic Wikipedia, “an archaism is a word, a sense of a word, or a style of speech or writing that belongs to a historical epoch long beyond living memory, but that has survived in a few practical settings or affairs.” An archaism is a survivor from a bygone age; it is the linguistic equivalent of an endangered species which will die out unless measures are taken to conserve and preserve it. The only way to conserve and preserve a word is to use it. If we don’t want endangered words to become extinct, we need to use them; if we don’t want to lose the unique meanings that endangered words convey, we need to add them to our word-horde and exchange them with others so that they can also add the rare but precious word to their own hordes.
Chesterton said that tradition is the extension of democracy through time, it is the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn. In using archaisms we are practicing this democratic traditionalism. We are recipients of the wealth of our ancestors and conveyers of that wealth to future generations. Another great linguistic traditionalist, J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a professor of philology at Oxford University, reminds us that language is subject to decay, that it is subject to the laws of inertia, and that it can only be renewed and revivified by the conservation and preservation of word usage. Understood in these terms, we can see that archaisms actually renew the language; they are the means by which language is renovated and restored to its original splendor. It is the old things that make all things new.
And lest we think that this is all very “nice” (in the archaic sense of the word) but is not all that important in terms of the practical and pragmatic “real world,” perhaps we should remind ourselves of the viciousness of vulgarized vocabulary. In our relativistic and secular fundamentalist culture, words such as “sin” and “virtue” are no longer used because they signify an objective or “religious” understanding of morality. They are considered “judgmental” and therefore bad because, for the relativist, morality is not something that is universally applicable but is in the eye of the beholder. In short, “sin” and “virtue” are in danger of becoming archaisms, which is to say that they are in danger of becoming endangered. If such words are not used, future generations will have no understanding of the things that the words “sin” and “virtue” signify. Sin and virtue, the things themselves and not merely the words, will be beyond the ken of future generations. Imagine a world in which sin and virtue are no longer part of anyone’s understanding of reality because the words which enable us to think about them are no longer in our word-hordes. Seen in this light, i.e. in a light which might go out if we don’t rekindle it, it is clear that the use of archaisms is anything but a mere “nicety”; it is a matter of life and death, and not merely the life and death of men but the life and death of Man.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Student” (1647) by Willem Drost (1633-1659), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.