Writers’ efforts to evoke a folksy or quaint sensibility by using a variation on the word old often fail because they use the wrong form. This post discusses the proper use of the variations.
When the intent is to simulate a drawl, the correct version of old is ol’, which follows the common pattern of dropping a word’s final consonant to relax pronunciation, as in, for example, rollin’ in place of rolling. This is the use seen in phrases such as “good ol’ boy” and in the song title “Ol’ Man River,” which alludes to the personification of the Mississippi River as an entity oblivious to the cares of the people who travel on it.
“Good ol’ boy” has positive and negative connotations in the American South and other areas; the positive sense is of a humble but well-bred man, though the pejorative sense of an ignorant and intolerant man is dominant. (In one region of England, however, the connotation is simply of a likeable man.) “Good ol’ boys’ club” or “good ol’ boys’ network alludes to an excessively insular group of men who discriminate against or ostracize others who are different or not associated with them. (The phrases were inspired by the British English notion of the “old boy network,” describing men linked by virtue of being alumni of certain prestigious public schools, with a similar but somewhat more elitist subtext.)
Ol’ is preferable to ole (not to be confused with olé, a Spanish exclamation synonymous with bravo! and, like that word, always punctuated with an exclamation point, which is nevertheless enshrined in the name of the Grand Ole Opry and in Ole Miss, the nickname for the University of Mississippi, as well as in the song title “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”
When establishing a reference to a real or imagined medieval sensibility, the archaism olde often appears in such designations as “Ye Olde Shoppe.” Olde dates back to a time when spelling was more flexible (and may reflect pronunciation during that era) and was revived starting in the mid-nineteenth century to suggest an air of antiquity.
Olde is valid, if a bit precious, but the word that often precedes it is misunderstood. Note that ye is not used here as an archaic form of you; it includes a variant of the obsolete English letter thorn, which resembles a mash-up of b and p and represents the soft th sound in the (as opposed to the hard sound in thorn). Therefore, it is correctly pronounced as the.
Olden is a variant of the adjective old, unnecessary except to lend a flavor of antiquity (as in the phrase “in olden times”). Auld, from an earlier pronunciation for old, was preserved in northern England and in Scotland; it’s best known as the first word in the song title “Auld Lang Syne” (in Scots, literally “old long since,” meaning “long ago” or “old times”). Old itself is often part of a nickname bestowed out of respect; among the recipients of such an epithet are President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, two naval vessels dubbed Old Ironsides because of their sturdy hulls, and the nursery rhyme character Old Mother Hubbard.