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Much ado over "fossil" words

Posted Friday, September 21, 2012, at 12:34 PM

Does this mean I'm an old fossil??

I'm aware that many of you may feel that Facebook is an utter waste of time, but sometimes my Facebook friends alert me to some interesting topics. Just this week, my "Grammar Girl" friend posted a link to a "DailyWritingTips" site that has me feeling like a dried-up old English teacher who can barely communicate with anyone under 65.

A writer by the name of Mark Nichol compiled the following list of "fossil words'" with this explanation: "Some of the most intriguing words in the English language are what linguists call fossil words, so named because they are artifacts from another era and survive only in isolated usage. Here is a list of some of our language's fossil words with definitions and the idiomatic phrases in which they appear:"

1. Ado: bother over unimportant details ("without further ado" or, more rarely, "much ado about nothing")

2. Amok:(or amuck): in an uncontrolled manner ("run amok")

3. Bandy: hit, pass, or toss around, or discuss lightly or employ off-handedly ("bandy about"); bowed ("bandy-legged")

4.Bated: restrained or deducted ("wait with bated breath")

5. Batten: lumber for flooring or for sealing or strengthening a joint or a flexible object such as a sail ("board and batten"); to provide or fasten with battens, or to fasten ("batten down the hatches")

6. beck: summons ("at (one's) beck and call")

7. Bygones: what has passed or is in the past ("let bygones be bygones")

8. Craw: stomach or crop ("sticks in (one's) craw")

9. Deserts: excellence or worth, or what is deserved or merited ("just deserts")

10. Dint: force or power ("by (sheer) dint of ")

11. Dudgeon: indignation ("high dudgeon")

12. Eke: accomplish or get with difficulty ("eke out")

13. Fettle: state of health or fitness ("in fine fettle")

14. Fro: away or back ("to and fro")

15. Hale: sound or very healthy ("hale and hearty")

16. Hither: near or adjacent, to this place ("hither and yon")

17. Immemorial: before memory or tradition ("time immemorial")

18. Jetsam: what is cast overboard from a ship ("flotsam and jetsam")--distinguished from flotsam, a word denoting what floats from a wreckage of a ship

19. Ken: range of knowledge, perception, or understanding, or view or range of vision (("beyond (one's) ken")

20. Kith: friends, neighbors, or relatives ("kith and ken")

21. Loggerhead: blockhead ("at loggerheads," meaning blocked, stalled, by stubbornness); also, a type of turtle

22. Mettle: quality, or vigor or strength of, temperament ("test (one's) mettle")

23. Neap: a weak tide ("neap tide")

24. Offing: the near future ("in the offing"); also, the deep ocean as seen from the shore

25. Petard: a container of explosives for breaching or breaking a barrier ("hoist by (one's) own petard")

26. Shebang: everything that is pertinent ("the whole shebang")

27. Shrift: confession ("short shrift," with the idea that a condemned person is given little time to confess sins)

28. Sleight: stratagem, dexterity ("sleight of hand")

29. Thither: more remote, or to that place ("hither and thither")

30. Turpitude: depravity ("moral turpitude")

31. Ulterior: beyond what is openly expressed ("ulterior motive") also, farther, or more distant, or what is on the farther side

32. Vim: robustness ("vim and vigor")

33. Wreak: bring about or cause ("wreak havoc")

34. Wrought: manufactured, ornamented, or shaped. or excited ("wrought iron")

35. Yore:the far past ("days of yore")

Reader Reaction to this post

As I read through this list, I found that I regularly use most of the words--except #23, "neap." Some, like "high dudgeon" are in my reading vocabulary (Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice"), or "dint" (Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar")

I always enjoy the reaction of other readers, and I found that I wasn't the only one who felt slightly alarmed that these common, everyday words had been labeled "fossils." One particularly enjoyable reader said, "'and survive only in isolated usage'? You mean by the literate?"

Other readers asked for the author's source, which he chose not to reveal.

I also enjoyed this comment: "Well! A pox upon those craven (and unnamed) linguists. I beg to differ...these words are most definitely in common usage by folk who appreciate a vocabulary of more than a few hundred nouns and assorted expletives."

I couldn't have said it better!

Well, I love any conversation about the English language--so I enjoyed this piece.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

The authors of my daily crossword puzzles surely do not know they are using archaic words and that pleases me because I do very well on the puzzles.

-- Posted by TNMom2 on Wed, Sep 26, 2012, at 8:52 PM

I play Words with Friends on Facebook, and I admit that these "fossil" words are very useful. Our English language is fascinating!

-- Posted by goat lady on Thu, Sep 27, 2012, at 6:21 AM

Words which, regrettably, have not yet made the fossils list include "wow" and "absolutely". Here's hoping.

A phrase long overdue to make the list is "Oh My God", presumably used by those who have found religion.

-- Posted by wartz on Thu, Sep 27, 2012, at 11:21 PM

Haha! I don't think "Oh My God" really has much to do with God, Wartz. I'm still trying to decide if it's profanity. I realize that opinions vary. I used to have a friend who declared the word "Phooey" to be profanity.

I think the most overused word in the English language is "like"! Can't stand sentences like this: "Well, like, I just love, like, to go, like, to the movies!"

Another characteristic of the young!

I love to watch British comedies on BBC--especially "Are you being served?" Mrs. Slokum is known for her erroneous use of "unanimous." I crack up when I hear her say, "And I am unanimous in this!"

-- Posted by goat lady on Tue, Oct 2, 2012, at 12:07 PM

Enough already ? Moving forward and from the get- go I'll give you a heads up which will tick all the boxes at the end of the day. Feel free to tell me to stop !

-- Posted by wartz on Thu, Oct 4, 2012, at 8:25 PM

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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net.
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