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Verbal Energy

Spring cleaning for the odd-words drawer

We take a look at some fossils – words that live on in just a single idiom.

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    A fossil of Atopodentatus unicus is seen alongside a reconstruction showing what it would have looked like in life is shown in this image.
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A gaze out my window this morning tells me we’re up for another dreary, gray day – what a local radio host is calling “more San Francisco weather.”

San Francisco should sue for slander. 

Maybe I could help precipitate spring by doing some spring cleaning. Maybe I should start by going through the odd-words drawer. 

This is the equivalent, in the house of vocabulary, of that space in a real home – often a kitchen drawer – where odd items accumulate: You don’t just want to chuck them out but aren’t quite sure what to do with them, either. Maybe use them for repairs? Such items prompt the question, “Do we still even have the thing this goes to?”

To which the answer is, surprisingly often, yes, we do. 

Fossil word is a linguist’s term for a word that is generally obsolete but lives on as part of a fixed idiom. The Mental Floss website had an entertaining list of a dozen of these a while back. It included the eke of “eke out,” the fro of “to and fro,” the shrift of “short shrift,” and the dint of “by dint of,” with its high-energy back story: Dint comes from an Old English word for a sword blow. 

These fossil idioms are often misspelled, perhaps because they seem to lack context. 

The hue of “hue and cry,” for instance, is spelled, coincidentally, like the hue that means color, not the hew that means to cut (something) or to hold (to a position). And the hue of “hue and cry” seems to come from a hunting cry. 

There’s the bated of “bated breath.” There’s no “i” because “bated” means “abated,” or held. To wait with bated breath means to hold your breath as you wait. 

It doesn’t mean holding a mint under your tongue as you wait for your sweetie to appear. That might be “baited” breath. 

Then there’s hale, meaning “to compel,” as in the idiom “to hale into court,” well established though rarely used. Many people spell it “hail” – perhaps thinking it refers to issuing greetings rather than invoking the force of law. Or they mishear and so misspell it, and we get “hauled into court.” 

As an adjective, hale pairs with hearty as a set phrase for (invariably) an active older person in good health. (See spry.)

Even when their spellings don’t cause trouble, the etymologies of these fossil words are often not what you’d think. Take the “lurch” you’re left in – to go back to the Mental Floss list. 

I’d imagined that if my plumber’s schedule lurches backward or forward and he finds himself unable to make it to my house that day, I would be left in the lurch. 

But it turns out the verb lurch comes from a nautical term, a “sudden pitch to one side.” The “lurch” you can get left in seems to come from the name of a French game (“akin to backgammon,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary) played in the 14th century. 

I know that being confused about the roots of an expression isn’t the same as spelling it wrong. But for those of us who want to know where our idioms come from, this matters. 

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