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Archival Skills: Archaic terms and spelling

Guide to the skills required to work successfully with archives including palaeography, archaic terms and spelling, historical dates, weights and measures, language, and transcription.

“For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets 

Introduction to archaic terms and spelling

Word usage, meaning and spelling in English has changed over the centuries.

Now antiquated or unfamiliar words were once common, and can often be found in written documents created during the Early Modern period.

Modern spelling, as we would recognise it, did not develop until the 19th century. Prior to this, spelling could vary widely between regions and writers, and even within the same document.

The development of the printing press heavily influenced a process of standardisation, so that from the mid-17th century there was a move towards the standards we now use. However, when working with records created before the 19th century, you will still often encounter unfamiliar terms and spellings.

An example of 17th century spelling 'a great timber may be perceived'

Archaic terms and word usage

When using archival material researchers often encounter unfamiliar terms, or unusual employment of familiar words.

As society, industry, practices and beliefs change, new words develop to cope with the changes. Old words can become obsolete and fall out of usage.

Recipe books, estate material, land records, court papers, and apprenticeship agreements are common classes of archives containing antiquated terminology. This reflects changes to weights and measures, alterations to statutes, and the development of new trades and practices.

Additionally, words can take on new meanings over time, as they are appropriated by different groups or for new purposes.

For example, ‘cell’ was used to refer to a monk's room within in monastery, whereas we would now use the word to refer to a holding room in a prison. Another example can be seen in the word ‘gay’; once used to mean happy, the term is now more commonly associated with discussions around same-sex relationships.

It's important to note that words used in the past might be uncomfortable to modern eyes, and to forewarn ourselves. For example, researchers focusing on mental health topics will regularly encounter this issue, with terms such as ‘idiot’ and ‘lunatic’ commonly employed to refer to individuals with disabilities or mental health problems. This sort of language use is a sign of the times and can provide insight into changing approaches to discourse on challenging subjects.

Online resources and tutorials

Non-standard spelling

When using archival material, it can be hard to recognise familiar words because they have been spelled in an unusual manner.

It can be helpful to think phonetically when reading unfamiliar words as it was common to spell by ear. When sounded out using phonetics, unfamiliar looking words can suddenly become familiar sounding.

Researchers of the Early Modern period are likely to encounter the following common examples of non-standard spelling:

  • the addition of a terminal ‘e’ at the end of words where we might consider this to be superfluous, i.e. ‘bolde’, ‘kinge’, ‘ensuinge’
  • the use of an ‘ie’ ending where we might now use ‘y’, i.e. ‘happie’, ‘commoditie’, ‘countrie’
  • interchangeable use of ‘i’ and ‘y’ in the middle of words, i.e. ‘alwaies’ or ‘alwayes’, ‘said’ or ‘sayd’
  • the use of ‘c’ in words ending ‘ion’ where we might use ‘t’, i.e. ‘commocion’, ‘elevacion’

Interchangeable Characters

An associated point to think about relates to the interchangeable use of certain characters to represent different letters

Be particularly aware of u/v and i/j. For example, where we write ‘every’, it is common to find the same word written as ‘euery’. This does not mean that the word has been spelled wrong, but rather that a ‘u’ has been used to signify a ‘v’.

Similarly, where we use the letter ‘u’ to write words beginning in ‘un’, it is common to find these words written using the letter ‘v’, i.e. ‘vnto’.

To give an example using i/j, the word ‘majesty’ might commonly be written as ‘maiesty’ or ‘majesty’.

For examples of common non-standard spellings taken from archive material, please see the uploaded PDF below:

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