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?