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Malapropism corner: arcane

October 6, 2012

 Here’s Harriet Walker in today’s Independent: ‘Witness the arcane but enduring trope that a woman’s body is not her own private business’. Leave aside trope, which I assume means belief or myth here, and look at the use of arcane. Arcane is supposed to mean ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’, but this is the opposite of what Walker must have meant; presumably she thinks the belief is all too much in evidence. The word she was groping for was probably archaic. These two words are frequently confused, partly because they sound similar and partly because archaic things often are arcane as well (eg hieroglyphics). But what’s interesting is that the confusion is always in one direction – arcane is used where archaic is meant, but not vice versa. I think this is because the word archaic is slightly better-known; arcane is thought of as a more rarefied, literary alternative.

Incidentally, I don’t mean to pick on either Harriet Walker (I agree that the belief that a woman’s body is not her own business is archaic and ought not to be enduring) or the Independent. That’s the newspaper I usually read so that’s where I notice examples of usage worthy of comment. If I read a different newspaper no doubt I’d find similar uses and misuses; perhaps I’ll try reading a different paper for a week and seeing what I see there.

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  1. I imagine you could do a post about “trope” itself; as far as I know, the use of “trope” to mean “a unit of storytelling” comes from TVTropes (, which is aware that its usage of the term is nonstandard (but growing). I have to say, I think it’s a valid usage; it’s a fairly clear widening of the word’s original meaning, & it’s a much more useful definition anyway.

    • NOAD has “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif”. I understood it to be common in this sense in lit. crit. My first exposure to it was in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, long before TVTropes.


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