Words to Retire: “Antediluvian”

The odds are pretty good that if you know what the word “antediluvian” means, you had to look it up.  And if you don’t know what it means, you would not likely be aided by the hint that it means the opposite of “postdiluvian.”  (Good grief, that’s an actual word.)  “Antediluvian” is just too obscure—not to mention clunky—to pass off on a mainstream audience without distracting a large fraction of it from your meaning.  If you want to convey that something is old, there are plenty of familiar synonyms.  (On the other hand, if you’re actually talking about things older than the the Biblical flood, then by all means, indulge.)

Thus, it escapes me why lots of otherwise fine writers improvidently use “antediluvian” as if it conveyed clear meaning or produced pleasant sounding sentences.  Here are a few examples of particularly bad usage I pulled from my Google Reader feed:

  • Robert Teitelman:  “And to establish some historical context for the ’70s, you’re forced back to the antediluvian ’30s.”  By definition, this makes no sense.  Sending your readers to the dictionary to get your meaning, where they will inevitably find you have not even bothered to use your words correctly, will hardly endear any of them to you.
  • Leonard Gilroy:  “Given the power of the bureaucracy and the tenacity of industry opponents of ABC reform, it may end up taking the combined strength of two popular governors to begin shutting down a few of the 18 remaining, antediluvian state-run liquor monopolies that seem more appropriate for Venezuela than they do 21st Century America.”  Since this piece is actually about tax policy and history, one would expect an actual approximation of the monopolies’ inception rather than hyperbole.
  • Jacob Sullum:  “‘In a radio address around the same time, President Barack Obama dreaded “a flood of attack ads run by shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names,” unleashed by a ruling that “allows big corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.’ [¶] In September a front-page New York Times story seemed to confirm these antediluvian prophecies.”  Ha!  “Flood” of attack ads.  Get it?

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. Since you are now blogging here, well, FLG must object to something that you write. In this case you made it easy. Antediluvian is a fantastic word.

    Far better if you spent your time, as FLG does, lamenting the misuse of the verb “to decimate” or the noun “decimation.”

      • Yup. Me, too. Once I learned the difference, I actually changed how I wrote in medical records from “anticipated clinical outcome” to “expected.”

        Because hey, I’m just awesome like that.

      • Have to admit, I hadn’t known that distinction. Got me searching: the root of “anticipate” and “participate” is “cip,” which, along with “cap” and “cept,” means “to take.” The root of “expect” is “spec” or “spect,” which mean “to look.”

    • If you’re like Burt and believe the Great Flood is nothing more than fantasy, then you’re exactly right.

      I can understand why “decimate” gets misused. It just SOUNDS like it should mean all-out annihilation. The actual meaning almost gets in the way.

      • See, that’s kind of how I feel about “antediluvian.” I think its “preposterously old” connotations make it useful, for those times when “antiquated” just doesn’t have the right ironic gloss.

        • I see your point. Though far fewer people know what “antediluvian” means. Besides, it’s FIVE SYLLABLES LONG! The poor noun that follows it is riding on fumes at that point.

  2. If I don’t believe that the Flood as described in the Bible actually happened, can I still properly use “antediluvian” (or “postdiluvian”)? It wouldn’t make sense to describe a phenomenon occurring after Andrew Johnson’s second term as President, for instance.

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