Old English Words We Can Use Again

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Language is constantly evolving, but is it always a good idea to say “out with the old and in with the new”? These old English words just might prove otherwise. 

The phrase “old English”can mean two different things. There’s the official term Old English, which refers specifically to the English spoken between 450 and 1150. But there’s also old English—as in words that are considered really old because they first appeared in the 1300s, 1400s, and beyond. 

There are dozens of English words that were first recorded in centuries past and then fell out of favor. Not every word survives the passage of time, but here’s a mix of 13 Old English and just plain old English words that we think may be ready for a second chance.

1. elflock

Sometimes a word needs to make a comeback because it’s just plain fun to use. Enter: elflock. This word from the late 1500s was used to describe a lock of hair that looks as though it’s been tangled by elves. In old folklore, elflocks (or fairy locks) were said to be the result of fairies or elves knotting the hair of sleeping children as they played in it during the night. We’ll take this explanation for our wild bedhead any day.

2. concupiscible

Concupiscible means “worthy of being desired,” which is an odd coincidence since we think the word itself is most definitely worthy of being desired… for use in modern times. Ultimately, though, the desire to which this word refers is a bit different from how we just used it. It refers to bodice-ripping, most-eligible-bachelor-level romantic desire. Think of it as the 15th-century equivalent of looking like a snack.

Even the English speakers of days past had ample words to describe the objects of their desire. Learn some old dating slang!

3. betwixt

Yes, betwixt just means “between,” and we already have a word for that, but doesn’t this one sound so much cooler? Betwixt is truly an Old English word, one that was first recorded before the year 950. It can also be used to convey holding an intermediate, indecisive, or middle position: “Pizza or sushi for dinner? I’m caught betwixt the two.”

4. brabble

It’s likely that few people know the word brabble, even if it’s something many of them do on social media every day. Brabble means “to argue stubbornly about trifles.” It was first recorded in English in the late 1400s, and it comes from the Dutch brabbelen, meaning “to quarrel, jabber.” It’s one very old word that would fit perfectly within our modern discourse.

5. slugabed

When you picture the 1500s, do you imagine everyone up at dawn and tending to the chores? Well, surprise. Even back then, people still wanted to sleep in. Slugabed means “a lazy person who stays in bed long after the time for rising.” Slug developed from the Middle English slugge, or “a lazy person; slothfulness, the sin of sloth.” Meanwhile, bed comes from the Old English bedd, meaning “sleeping place” or “garden bed.” The result is this oh-so-relatable word that’s perfect for a Monday morning.

6. hagride

Hagride means “to afflict with worry, dread, need, or the like; torment.” But it’s the word’s origin story that might strike a chord with modern wordies. The word is related to witchcraft—namely how witches were once thought to ride brooms and torment unsuspecting parties with hexes or nightmares. Over time, it came to refer to anything that causes personal torment. As in, all of these Zoom meetings are really hagriding me.

7. mickle

Sometimes big things come in small packages. For example, the word mickle. This little six-letter word means “great; large; much.” It can refer to something that’s large in size, like a mickle storm. But it can also refer to a great amount of something, like a mickle of TikTok followers. This word has range, and we’re here for that kind of versatility.

8. caliginous

On dreary nights, we could really use a word like caliginous. Meaning “misty, dim, dark,” this word really covers all the bases for what makes a scene spooky and mysterious. It was first recorded in English in the 1540s and has since fallen out of use. But, we feel like it’s time for a comeback—if not for everyday usage, then at least to dominate the horror and cozy mystery genres.

9. bookcraft

The word bookcraft means exactly what you might assume it means: “literary skill; authorship.” It’s an archaic noun used to talk about great talents with storytelling and the written word. Bookcraft appeared in English before the year 900. Clearly, people’s love of words and stories is a tale as old as time.

Speaking of bookcraft and the love of words, learn all about how words get added to the dictionary over time.

10. brainish

You might think brainish means smart, but that’s actually incorrect. This word, first recorded in the 1520s, means “impetuous, headstrong.” A brainish person dives right in and is determined to have their own way. It kind of describes the way some of our grandparents act on Facebook, or how Gen Z argues on TikTok. Clearly, it’s a character trait that transcends time or generations, so we think this one deserves a spot in 2023.

11. unfriend

Unfriend isn’t just a social media term. Its use in English actually dates back to the 1200s when it was used as a noun to refer to an enemy. It makes sense, right? The opposite of a friend is an unfriend. The simplicity of that idea makes it a welcome addition in the modern vocabulary, even if it does mean our social media unfriending becomes a bit more literal.

12. constellate

Why gather when you can constellate? Constellate means “to cluster together, as stars in a constellation.” It first appeared in English between 1615 and 1625. It’s a perfect word for holidays, parties, celebrations, and anything magical or special that brings people together. 

13. crapulent

If someone says they’re feeling crapulent, it’s not hard to guess what they mean by that. Crapulent means “sick from gross excess in drinking or eating.” It first appeared in English in the mid-1600s and can be traced all the way back to the Greek kraipálē, meaning “drunkenness, a hangover.” Rarely does a word so perfectly capture a specific feeling, and that’s what makes it a perfect choice for a reboot.

Practice your knowledge with this handy word list

Practice your mastery of these comeback-worthy English words of old with our old English word list.

After learning some of the most apt English of the past, try mastering today's freshest Gen Z slang.

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