20 Words Meaning “Being or Existing in the Past”

By Mark Nichol

This list features former and eighteen other adjectives (and a prefix) that can be used to refer to a position no longer held or a state no longer active, exclusive of the synonyms for original.

1. antecedent: Though this word is usually seen in noun form, it can also be an adjective, as in “She wants to answer the antecedent question.”

2. earlier: This comparative of early, like most words on this list, can function as an adjective as well as an adverb; in the former usage, one can say, for example, “The earlier iteration had many flaws.”

3. erstwhile: This somewhat stuffy, self-conscious synonym for former was originally an adverb, as in “The two were erstwhile adversarial” but has been in use as an adjective since the early 1900s. The first syllable from this word from Old English is from the superlative for ere (“before”).

4. ex-: This prefix is attached, nearly always with a hyphen, to a noun to signify that a status is no longer current, as in “All four living ex-presidents attended the event.” (The exception is when an en dash is used in place of the hyphen to signal that what follows the prefix is an open compound, as in “All four living ex–vice presidents attended the event.” It might be better, however, just to use former or another alternative.) The prefix, which originally meant “from” or “out of” but now has several senses, is also sometimes used as a stand-alone word, especially in reference to a former significant other, as in “Oh, I saw your ex the other day.”

5. former: This is the default word to describe the sense of something no longer being what it was; it can also be used as the antonym of latter to refer to the first of two things.

6. late: When used on its own to modify a person’s name (“the late John Smith”), it means that the person is deceased. “Late of,” however, is an outdated way of saying that someone is no longer associated with something, as in “Mary Jones, late of Centerville” (meaning that she recently lived there).

7. onetime: This synonym of former (“Mary Jones is a onetime resident of Centerville”) may also mean “done or happening one time only”). The word is sometimes hyphenated when the latter meaning is intended.

8. old: Old distinguishes something from something else from an earlier time that was replaced, as in “I think that the old design looks better.”

9. original: This word can be used in place of former or a synonym to refer to an initial state, as in “The original plans called for a large entrance.”

10. other: This word occasionally substitutes for former, as in “In other times, we might not have given it a second thought”; a similar usage is, for example, “the other day,” referring to a recent day.

11. past: This word is used narrowly in the sense of someone who no longer holds a position, as in “past president.”

12. precedent: Like the similar word antecedent, this term is usually used as a noun but can function as an adjective, as in “A precedent event in her life turned out to be a character-defining one.”

13. preceding: Preceding has the same sense as precedent and is used more commonly.

14. preexisting: This word means “existing in an earlier time.” (Note that the prefix pre- is not attached to the root word with a hyphen.)

15. previous: Previous can mean “existing before in general” or “existing immediately before,” depending on whether one writes, for example, “a previous administration” or “the previous administration.”

16. prior: This word is identical in meaning to previous, though it is less likely than that word to be used to refer to mean “immediately previous”; it also has the sense, rarely employed, of “being more important because it came first.”

17. quondam: This direct borrowing from Latin was originally an adverb and a noun, but those usages are obsolete, and adjectival use is rare and often considered overly formal.

18. sometime: Sometime began as an adverb. Later, it acquired the sense of “at some future time,” as in “I’ll see you again sometime,” and finally developed an adjectival sense.

19. then: The adverbial use of this word (“I’ll go, then”) and its function as a conjunction (“First, I waved, and then I called out to her”) were followed by the development as an adjective meaning “being at that time”; it should be used in place of former or most other synonyms to indicate that the state existed during the time being discussed, as in “In 1968, then California governor Ronald Reagan considered running for president.” (Note that then is not hyphenated to the following word.)

20. whilom: This synonym for former (and formerly) is archaic and rarely used anymore.

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