To be arch

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I am reading "The turn of the screw" by Henry James. Maybe you can tell me what "to be arch" means? Here is the context:
"They were all listening now, and of course there was somebody to be arch, or at any rate to draw the inference."
  • DocPenfro

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Try to use the search box at the top of the page for simple definition queries of this kind. The use of "arch" here corresponds to definition (2): "self-consciously playful or teasing"

    This usage is archaic and effectively obsolete. I doubt whether any present-day writers would use it.

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I'm not sure I agree with the Doc about this adjectival use being effectively obsolete. I use it myself, though that may not be saying much, but both Corpuses have quite recent examples, eg (the first two are from the BNC, the last from the COCA):

    Baldwin's letter is arch. Baldwin, Roy Jenkins. 1984

    Marie-Christine gave her an arch look. Tower of shadows. Sara Craven, Mills and Boon 1993

    Her voice was arch, her words measured. Antiquesbizarre Barbara Allan 2010


    Senior Member
    English - British
    I'm not sure I agree with the Doc about this adjectival use being effectively obsolete. I use it myself
    Obsolescent, then? (Not you personally, I hasten to add). "Arch" is one of those words that, for decades, has drifted around the periphery of my passive vocabulary, at a distance such that I've generally had to have a quick glance at the dictionary to make sure I understood it correctly when encountering it. However, never once have I used it actively. I feel that it has a literary quality that makes it an unlikely candidate for my own prosaic excursions into print (or the online equivalent). My thesaurus places it alongside pietistic (sic), sly, nudging and winking. I'm not sure how I would express myself if I wanted to say something along these lines.
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    Senior Member
    english, USA
    I too use 'arch' in this way, though perhaps I enjoy using obsolescent words. I came upon this discussion while looking for the etymology of 'arch' in this sense. Does it have something to do with arched eyebrows?


    Senior Member
    English - England
    arch (adj.) -
    1540s, "chief, principal," from prefix arch-; used in 12c. archangel, etc., but extended to so many derogatory uses (arch-rogue, arch-knave, etc.) that by mid-17c. it acquired a meaning of "roguish, mischievous," since softened to "saucy." Also found in archwife (late 14c.), variously defined as "a wife of a superior order" or "a dominating woman, virago."

    It is certainly not obsolete or archaic, I have used it myself and have been accused of being arch; it is merely not that common. I suspect that people see others being arch but do not know there is a word for it.


    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I think we encounter the word mostly as the adverb archly. That is definitely not obsolete or archaic. There are 55 occurrences in the BNC,* though the majority are from prose fiction - usually with reference to how someone said things (he said archly, she finished archly) or to someone's smile (she smiled archly).

    On the etymology, the OED says
    a. [Arising from prec. sense, in connection with wag, knave, rogue, hence with fellow, face, look, reply, etc.]

    The 'preceding sense' refers to its use to mean 'chief' or 'pre-eminent'.

    *British National Corpus


    Senior Member
    Cantonese, Hong Kong
    I just checked MacMillian Dictionary, which defines it as "speaking or looking as though you think it is funny that you know something that someone else does not know (macmillan dictionary)

    Is this definition too narrow in your view?
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