Most would recognize the Middle English verb beckon, as in “I beckoned the waiter to my table.” The noun beck means “a gesture used to signal, summon, or direct someone.” Though the noun has fallen out of use, it is preserved in the phrase “be at someone’s beck and call.”
Fossilized words are linguistic artifacts of another era preserved only in certain idioms or phrases. We may recognize such words from their set phrases, but we often don’t understand their true meaning or history. Below are ten fossilized words with definitions and the idiomatic phrases in which they appear.
The word abate means “reduced or lessened in force.” The word bate is simply a-bate after losing its unstressed first vowel in a linguistic process called aphesis, like around and round. Though abate and bate were both in use from the 14th century, the latter lost its steam by the 19th century. The adjective bated was fossilized in Shakespeare’s familiar “with bated breath,” where one’s breathing is reduced from awe, terror, or excitement.
Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this …
The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare
When we say, “He got his just deserts,” it’s usually with a bit of schadenfreude for justice served. The deserts in this case is the Old French word for deserve and was used from the 13th century to mean “that which is deserved.”
This Old English word has been preserved in our language in the phrase “by dint of…” Dint originally referred to “a blow struck with a sword or other weapon” or “subduing something by force.” Today, “by dint of” charisma, hard work, luck, or intelligence, one’s efforts are applied to accomplish something.
The word eke is from the Middle English word ēac and means to “add, supplement, or grow.” It’s meaning has idiomatically evolved to include “to make a living or support one’s existence,” as well as “to scrimp, stretch, or squeeze,” e.g., “They managed to eke out a living” or “I eked three meals out of a five-dollar bill.”
Keeping in mind its original meaning, the word eke–name means an additional name or alias. The word changed over time by way of linguistic re-bracketing. The misdivision of the syllables of the phrase “an ekename” led to its rephrasing as “a nekename” or “nickname” as we know it today.
Like “hoot and holler,” the phrase “hue and cry” conveys the image of a rowdy or incensed mass of people. Hue is from the Old French heu, and like hoot, is an onomatopoeia for a crowd’s noisy clamor. The phrase “hue and cry” is also an Anglo-Norman French legal phrase hu e cri, and former English common law where bystanders are summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal witnessed in the act of committing a crime. The word has been fossilized in such phrases as, “A hue and cry was raised against the new tax proposals.”
Kith is an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance and also stood for one’s native land or country. Kith includes persons who are known or familiar and taken collectively, such as one’s friends, neighbors, or fellow countrymen. The phrase is used in such examples as “She became a widow without kith or kin” or “Is this the way we treat our kith and kin?”
Lurch, as in “leave someone in the lurch,” means to leave them in a jam or difficult position. Lurch comes from an old French backgammon-style game called Lourche. The name of the game became a general expression for beating your opponent by a large score and, by extension, getting the better of someone, if even by cheating. Though the rules of the game have been lost, it’s memory is preserved in this common phrase.
Pale is derived by way of Anglo-French from the Latin word palus, meaning “stake.” The verb impale is still in common use and means “to torture or kill by fixing on a sharp stake.” In it’s literal uses, pale referred to stakes, fences, and boundaries made of stakes. This extended to geographical areas with defined limits. Historically, the areas of Ireland, Scotland, and areas of France that were dominated by the English were referred to as “the English Pale” and anything outside to be “beyond the pale.”
Over time, pale took on a metaphorical sense, meaning “the limits within which one is privileged or protected.” To be “beyond the pale” is to be outside such protective limits. Today, the phrase is most often used to describe behavior that is regarded as shocking, outlandish, or uncivilized — going beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable.
Roughshod & Slipshod
The word shod simply means “wearing shoes” and is from the past tense Middle English verb shoen, “to shoe.” Shod feet referred to anything wearing a shoe though today it usually alludes to shoeing horses. In the 16th century slipshod meant loosely fitting “slip-shoes” or “slippers.” By the 19th century the word came to mean something loose and shabby.
Roughshod specifically referred to a method of shoeing a horse with protruding nails to help the animal on icy roads. By the 1700s, “riding roughshod over something” came to mean a lack of concern for or treating someone abusively, as in “He ran roughshod over anyone standing in his way.”
In Middle English, go and wenden were two words which meant “to proceed on one’s way.” The past tense of go was gaed and the past tense of wend was went. By the 15th century, went had replaced the past tense forms of go giving us an inexplicably irregular verb. Robbed of its past form, wend developed a new past tense — wended. Though wend is rarely used today without the object way, we see the fossilized form of the word in the phrase, “to wend one’s way.”
Supperless to bed, the plunderers wend, And feast upon the pleasant dreams which on deceit attend.
— Thomas Park, Sonnets, 1797
Learn more about the rich history of English! The History of English 1 & 2 begins with the Celts on the prehistoric British Isles up through Late Modern English. The Future of English looks at English as the global lingua franca and the role of foreign speakers of the language in shaping its future.
Fishing games are a classic children’s activity and always a hit in my classes! Check out all the fishy fun in Donald’s English Classroom!