Fossil Words

fossil word

Much ado about nothing as we bandy about some fossil words in today’s Wikiworm, unearthed from the weirder side of Wikipedia.

fossil word is a word that is generally obsolete but remains in currency because it is contained within an idiom still in use.

Fossil status can also occur for word senses and for phrases. An example for a word sense is ‘navy’ in ‘merchant navy’, which means ‘commercial fleet’ (although that sense of navy is obsolete elsewhere). An example for a phrase is ‘in point’ (relevant), which is retained in the larger phrases ‘case in point’ (also ‘case on point’ in the legal context) and ‘in point of fact’, but is not otherwise used outside of a legal context.

English language examples:

  • ado, as in “without further ado” or “much ado about nothing”, although the homologous form “to-do” remains attested (“make a to-do”, “a big to-do”, etc.)
  • amok, as in “run amok”
  • bandy, as in “bandy about” or “bandy-legged”
  • bated, as in “wait with bated breath”, although the derived term “abate” remains in nonidiom-specific use
  • beck, as in “at one’s beck and call”, although the verb form “beckon” is still occasionally seen in nonidiom-specific use
  • bygones, as in “let bygones be bygones”
  • caboodle, as in “kit and caboodle” (a “born fossil” in that “kit and caboodle” evolved from “kit and boodle”, which itself was a fixed phrase borrowed as a unit from Dutch kitte en boedel)
  • craw, as in “sticks in (one’s) craw”
  • coign, as in “coign of vantage”
  • deserts, as in “just deserts”, although singular “desert” in the sense of “state of deserving” occurs in nonidiom-specific contexts including law and philosophy
  • dint, as in “by dint of”
  • druthers, as in “if I had my druthers…” (note that “druthers” is a “born fossil”, having been formed by elision from ” [‘I’d/(I would) rathers’ and never occurring outside the listed phrase to begin with)
  • dudgeon, as in “in high dudgeon”
  • eke, as in “eke out”
  • fettle, as in “in fine fettle”
  • fro, as in “to and fro”
  • helter skelter, as in “scattered helter skelter about the office”, Middle English skelten to hasten
  • hither, as in “come hither”, “hither and thither”, and “hither and yon”
  • immemorial, as in “time immemorial”
  • jetsam, as in “flotsam and jetsam”, except in legal contexts (especially admiralty, property, and international law)
  • kith, as in “kith and kin”
  • loggerheads as in “at loggerheads” or loggerhead turtle
  • mettle, as in “test one’s mettle”
  • neap, as in “neap tide”
  • offing, as in “in the offing”
  • petard, as in “hoist[ed] by [one’s] own petard”
  • riddance, as in “good riddance”
  • shebang, as in “the whole shebang”, but the word can be used as a common noun in programmers’ jargon, especially on Unix-like systems
  • shrive, preserved only in inflected forms occurring only as part of fixed phrases: ‘shrift’ in “short shrift” and ‘shrove’ in “Shrove Tuesday”
  • sleight, as in “sleight of hand”
  • spick, as in “spick and span”
  • tarnation, as in “what in tarnation…?” (a “born fossil” in that it evolved only in the context of fixed phrases formed by mincingof previously fixed phrases that include the term “damnation”)
  • turpitude, as in “moral turpitude”
  • vim, as in “vim and vigor”
  • yore, as in “of yore”, usually “days of yore”
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About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

4 thoughts on “Fossil Words

    December 27, 2014 at 13:54

    Well, “amok” was never really an English word to begin with, was it?

    A “shebang” in the Unix sense, by the way, is a “#!” at the beginning of a script, followed by the pathname of the program that is to run the script. So one has “#!/bin/bash” or “#!/usr/bin/perl”. And for the matter there is an editing program called “vim”.

    • Brit
      December 29, 2014 at 10:36

      I know it’s a pain but until we get the bug fixed please do make sure that your email address isn’t showing in the Name box before submitting your comment.

      We’ve got a load of improvements to make to the site but for cost reasons we need to do them all in one go. Sorry for the inconvenience.

      December 29, 2014 at 11:26

      yes – agree on ‘Amok’ not actually being a fossil word!

    December 29, 2014 at 11:23

    this is being fixed this week!

Comments are closed.