C2.2 – What’s in a word? old-fashioned – dilapidated – quaint

In our first class we explored some synonyms of or words with a similar meaning to the adjective old-fashioned.  Here’s a summary of the list we came up with in class:

With a more positive meaning:  quaint  /  antique  / old-world (olde-worlde / oldy-worldy) / charming

With a more negative meaning:  dated / out of date / outdated / outmoded / rickety – jolting (especially in the context of old trains)  / dilapidated (with i not e!)  / run down / on its last legs / antiquated

Here are some more words which have similar meanings when used in a more negative sense:  out of fashion / old hat / passé / behind the times / archaic / obsolescent / obsolete / defunct / medieval / square / prehistoric / backward-looking / anachronistic / not with it / out of the ark


  • Which 4 words / expressions do you think are the most colloquial?
  • Categorise the words above between those that could describe:  Ideas    Places    Objects (e.g. consumer products)

We also looked in more detail at dilapidated in the context of describing places and buildings.  Here are some more words which express a similar idea:  tumble down / ramshackle / in disrepair / shabby / battered / shaky / crumbling / in ruins / ruined / decayed / decrepit / neglected / uncared for / untended / the worse for wear / falling to pieces

Clearly, these words communicate a more negative idea about the place they describe.  Here are some examples from Giles Tremlett’s book Ghosts of Spain.  The first describes the Calle Carmen in San Fernando, birthplace of Camarón de la Isla…

Here in the shabby end of the shabbiest part of town, in a two-room house that shared a small patio with several neighbours, José Monge Cruz was born in December 1950.

The second example is from a description of the town of Dos Hermanas near Seville…

We drove up to Cerro Blanco, a gypsy barrio of crumbling, one-storey houses in Dos Hermanas.  Serrano ushered us into a dilapidated, single-bedroom house furnished with nothing more than a bed, a kitchen table, a few plastic chairs, a loudly humming refrigerator and a rusting sink.

Here’s another set of examples in context.  This is from a website description of Lisbon…

The whole city is crumbling.  Peeling plaster and missing tiles made for some interesting textures on the walls.  Unfortunately, Lisbon can’t pull off the elegant flaky-paint look the way Venice does.  Lisbon just looks terribly dilapidated, it’s glory days over, deteriorating as we watch.  Its structures are still grand, but they’re dressed like homeless derelicts, with the same empty-eyed glower, all dignity and self-respect burned off by neglect. 

But, however negative the connotations of these words, we can’t take for granted that something described as shabby, crumbling or dilapidated  is necessarily done in a negative way.  Depending on context, the target-audience of a text and purpose for writing or speaking, we can present these characteristics in a completely different way.  Take a look at some more examples…

Cadiz  A beguilling air of genteel decay pervades this old sea town, one of the great cities of the Spanish South

Once you’ve got through the tedious modern suburbs on its eastern flank, inner Cadiz, built on a peninsula-island entered via the Puertas de Tierra (Land Gates) – a substantial remnant of the eighteenth-century walls – looks much as it must have done in the great days of the empire, with grand open squares, sailors alleyways and high, turreted houses.  Literally crumbling from the effect of the sea air on its soft limestone, it has a tremendous atmosphere – slightly seedy, definitely in decline, but still full of mystique.

The old city looks quite Moorish in appearance and is intriguing with narrow cobbled streets opening onto small squares.  The golden cupola of the cathedral looms high above long white houses and the whole place has a slightly dilapidated air.

These descriptions of Cádiz, the first two from The Rough Guide to Andalucía and the third from the website andalucía.com, I think, show how seemingly negative words can be put to work by writers to present something in a much more positive light.  The ideas of dilapidation, seddiness, decline and decay are used but still paint an attractive portrait of the city as somewhere mysterious and atmospheric.  The examples from Ghosts of Spain and the description of Lisbon may use similar words but the effect is very different.

Lisbon - charmingly dilapidated or crumbling to ruin?

Let’s look at another example.  A good example of something old-fashioned could also be shabby, which gives us ideas of something worn, faded and not new.  A good opposite of old-fashioned could be chic, which leads us to imagine high couture, the haute couture or alta costura of Parisiene fashion houses, something new and daring and the height of fashion.  But, if you search for the exact phrase “shabby chic” in google, you get 2.25 million results.  4% of all google examples of chic collocate with shabby and about 29% of all google examples of shabby collocate with chic.  Trust the world of fashion to confuse us more with a collocation of two contrasting styles.  It presents us with all sorts of new dilemas.  Are my old trainers worn out and fit for the dustbin or are they a good example of shabby-chic?  Does shabby-chic mean the denim jacket from the second-hand clothes shop or something on the hangers in a high-street fashion store that has been designed to look old and distressed?

But anyway, let’s not get away from the main idea.  Depending on context a word with seemingly negative meaning can become something more positive and vice versa.  Take the word charming.  What kind of picture does it paint for you?  Charming narrow streets leading to a small square lined with table fronted cafés?  Behaviour which is the height of good manners?  This follows with the Cambridge Dictionary’s first definition of the word:  pleasant and attractive.  However, there’s another definition meaning the opposite!  Someone who is charming uses their attractiveness to influence people or to make other people like them.  Look at the personification of the word itself, the fairy tale Prince Charming is usually the embodiment of good manners, the walking definition of good-looking and the good guy that finally saves the poor princess from whatever terrible fate awaits her.  But sometimes we get to see the other side.  Take the depiction of Prince Charming that we see in Shrek II – he’s a charmer alright but he’s also vain, arrogant and plots against the heroes of the story.  This subversion of the norm has great comic results and was also evident in the character of Ken in Toy Story III – the charming side is presented first, the true colours are shown later on and the good characters use this against him.

So, to sum up, I guess the lesson is that words can’t always be taken on face value.  Use them for your own means.  Experiment with them.  Providing you’re clear about your message and the context is appropriate, the use of a supposedly negative word in a positive way might give your writing an extra lift and help you appeal directly to the readership group you are writing to by showing a love for something that other people might find unattractive.

More activities

Quaint is another adjective, like charming, that can have a positive and negative sense.  The positive meaning is “attractive because it is unusual or old” and the negative is “disapproving of an idea, opinion or a manner of behaviour because it is old-fashioned.”  A good example of the latter would be describing someone’s ideas on a sensitive subject as quaint.  For example, someone could express ideas about immigration that you disagree with but rather than openly-criticise their ideas to someone else you could say “they have some quaint ideas about immigration.”  The effect is less drastic and condeming than a word like “racist” or “outdated” but clearly communicates disapproval.  Old-fashioned can be used in the same way.

  • Have a look at the examples below.  Are the uses of quaint used to communicate positive or negative ideas?

“Here we find quaint, old Spain; a small town with cobbled streets and historic buildings.  Friendly people and surrounded by tree covered mountains and green…”   (www.6starholiday-aracena.com)

“Shops, bars, and quaint cafes with stunning views abound in Mijas, and there are plenty of resting places and view-points dotted…” (www.andalucia-travelguide.com)

“…there’s a danger in giving a bunch of outmoded and quaint ideas more dignity than they deserve by allowing them the power to offend you.”  (www.sfreviews.net/narnia06.html)

“They (world leaders) don’t have any respect for quaint ideas like a free will of the people and they believe violence is the answer to all foreign policy questions.”  (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2007_10/012171.php)

Also, if you’re very interested in the interpretation of words, take a look at this news story about the use of the word “quaint” in a White House memo.

  • Collocation is key to using words that might normally convey negative ideas in a positive way.  In the examples given above we have genteel decaya slightly dilapidated air and slightly seedy.  Try using some of the words from the list above in a positive way to describe places you know using some adverbs or adjectives to modify them.
  • Leave a comment on one of the ideas below or anything else that comes to mind.
  • Can you think of any widely-held ideas that are in a way too quaint for modern society?
  • What’s your reaction to the use of words like dilapidated and shabby in descriptions of places?  Do these features appeal to you or turn you off visiting a place.
  • What about fashion styles such as “shabby-chic” – do you find it just an excuse to be scruffy or does it take a sense of style to be able to pull off such a look successfully?


Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain (Faber, London, 2006)

Geoff Garvey and Mark Ellingham, The Rough Guide to Andalucía (Rough Guides, NYC, London, Delhi, 2006)

Lisbon description from a website about hunting street thieves, bobarno.com:  Follow the link to read more.

Links:  Meet Ken from Toy Story III, Patti Page sings about quaint little villages in Old Cape Cod.


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Filed under C2.2 - Vocabulary

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