Fossil Words

Twelve year olds have a different vocabulary than I had at that age. “I get ‘hangry’ when I don’t eat,” K. tells me, describing a particular quality of anger arising from hunger. We were watching ‘Blue Planet’ on TV again. This time it was spine-chilling footage of a Sixgill shark, stealthily scanning the ocean floor in poorly lit waters. David Attenborough told us the shark was hungry and would soon ascend to the shallow water to hunt before going back down to the black depths to skulk. The Sixgill looked the very epitome of ‘hangry’. “Well, when I get over-tired I get ‘slweepy’; I break into tears easily,” I told her, joining in. “You’ve made that word up!” She wasn’t buying it. I’m not sure if ‘hangry’ has made it into the dictionary yet, but apparently ‘chillax’ is now included in the Oxford English, along with ‘bromance’, ‘guyliner’, and ‘jeggings’. I love words, and I love coming across new words, either obscure words that are just new to me, or words that have been newly created as people – mostly the younger generation – experiment and splice words to create new ones.

Sometimes I watch University Challenge. I watch to amaze myself at how much information and knowledge young brains can learn and hold, but I also watch in the very slim chance that I might answer one question. Occasionally I remember things that are on it, and I learn something. The other night there was a question about ‘fossil words’. I can’t remember the detail of the question, but it struck me as a wonderful term. It refers to words that have become fossilized – that is to say, broadly obsolete in everyday usage – but they can still be found within fairly commonly used idioms.

Looking up some examples I have found the word ‘beck’, as in: “What did your last maid die of? Do you think I’m at your beck and call?” Although the verb ‘beckon’ is still fairly commonly used, it seems that ‘beck’, outside of the idiom, has become fossilised. Another example of a fossil word is, ‘ado’, a word we tend to use only within the idioms: ‘without further ado’, or, ‘much ado about nothing.’ In any other context, the word ‘ado’ has become fossilized and replaced with the corresponding word, ‘to-do’.

My friend tells me that she is going to slay the Christmas shopping monster by making all of her purchases on Amazon in ‘one foul swoop’. I laughed at her re-modelling of the ‘one fell swoop’ idiom; tempting as it might seem, there is something pretty ‘foul’ about doing all of your shopping on Amazon. Funnily enough, my friend was pointing me to yet another fossil word: ‘fell’, in the context of ‘one fell swoop.’ It turns out it is actually a line of Shakespeare from ‘Macbeth’ and the word ‘fell’ means ‘fierce, savage, cruel, ruthless, dreadful, terrible’, in the context of a bird of prey swooping down for the kill but is little use that way now.

New words are marvellous: I have never been ‘glamping’, I do not ‘vape’ and I can’t be sure whether or not I have been ‘photobombed’, but I think I prefer to look to the fossils and see what under-used word treasures there are to be found, polished up, and used once more.

One thought on “Fossil Words

  1. Most people use language like a stake bound hirpled horse They limp in an ever diminishing circle over the same tired ground using the same hackneyed vocabulary.
    If Coleridge’s definitions of Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order, then we owe it to all to let the horse free as often as possible to gallop over different territory to see what fossil phrases can be dragged back to popular parlance. Keep digging and displaying Eimear


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