- Excessively complicated abstract, or secret, to the point of being understandable only by a few or by those with proper initiation
- Characteristic of complex, supernatural arts
Here at WinEveryGame, we believe that wisdom should be available to everyone, not just those in the highest echelons of academia. We feel that a person shouldn't have to be initiated into some secret sect to have the right to learn about the world, that it isn't right to withhold knowledge by keeping it out of sight or coding it in unfamiliar jargon. While we can't go around teaching everyone in the world, we try to do our part by illuminating the English language in a way that anyone can understand. Our goal is to make a lexicon that's not an unfathomable body of arcane mysteries but an open collection of words, easily understandable to everyone who uses it.
Arcane is an adjective that describes facts or matters of learning that are only accessible to a small, select group of people. To the general public, something arcane is a complete mystery, either because it's being deliberately kept a secret or because it requires special learning to understand. Arcane often lends itself to descriptions of academic or very technical fields, where high levels of experience or education are needed to grasp the concepts involved. If you've ever seen one of the complex, almost nonsensical-looking equations fundamental to quantum mechanics, for example, you might be amazed that anyone could understand such an arcane study.
You might think of arcane information as locked in a treasure chest to which only a couple of people have the keys. In this metaphor, a key might be the type of education or training alluded to in the previous example, like the PhD you'd need to reasonably understand quantum mechanics equations. However, a key might also be literal if the information in question is purposefully kept out of the public eye. Secret clubs, the CIA, the Freemasons, the Illuminati - all are secretive organizations that claim to hold arcane truths, revealing them only to the exclusive few who have been initiated into their ranks. Of course, besides being physically hidden away, something can be kept arcane in plain sight simply by encoding it in a way that can only be understood by a certain group. That's why we're so dedicated to explaining our words in plain English, rather than locking them up with overcomplicated academic jargon!
One last thing to note about arcane is that it's a popular word choice among science fiction and fantasy writers. The word sometimes carries a connotation of spooky haziness, of describing something that's too ancient or supernatural for the ordinary person to comprehend. For this reason, arcane is often used to characterize something as magical or paranormal.
Example: To amuse themselves, the two brothers invented an arcane language that only they could understand.
Example: I marveled at the arcane glyphs on the ancient Mayan artifact, wondering what they could possibly mean.
Example: The corrupt, sly politician hid a loophole within the arcane language of the legislation.
It turns out that thinking of something arcane as like a treasure locked in a chest is a pretty apropos comparison, as one of the word's earliest ancestors is the Latin arca, which means "box" or, specifically, "a container used to keep something safe." Arca would further develop into the Latin verb arcere ("to lock away" or "to seal up") and adjective arcanus ("secret, furtive, or clandestine"). As you may have guessed from the similar spellings and meanings, arcanus served as the most direct link to the English arcane, the use of which arose sometime around the 1540s.
Plus, some bonus etymology for you Batman fans: the original arca stems from the Proto-Indo-European root ark-, which means "to contain or keep locked up under guard." This is, of course, the same root that forms the name of the infamously eerie Arkham Asylum.
Arcanely: This rarely-seen adverb refers to something done in a way that is difficult to understand or meant to be comprehended only by a few.
Example: The students gazed in complete stupefaction at the equations their teacher was writing arcanely on the board.
Arcanum/Arcana: Arcana is a noun that refers to secrets or to enigmatic knowledge and practices. Arcana is the plural form of arcanum, but the latter is much less common in everyday usage. Arcana might be used to describe the secret spells of witches, while an arcanmum might be one particular from that collection, like a spell that makes your laundry do itself (if only). Neither arcana nor arcanum are true derivatives of arcane, but rather developed from similar origins around the same time period.
Example: Millions of Americans seek professional help with figuring out the arcana involved in the U.S. tax code.
From Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance:
The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power--and that all too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition.
Obama uses the word arcane to characterize a legal system that sometimes seems maddeningly intricate and hopeless to understand. His opinion of the American legal system isn't totally disparaging, though, as later in the work he describes how, at its best, the law can help us to learn about society and even forms a part of our culture.
- Something arcane is hard to explain
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of arcane. Did you use arcane in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.