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What Are Fossil Words?

By June 21, 2016Language

Do you know what fossil words are? They’re words that have fallen out of favour and have all but disappeared from our everyday language yet they still leave echoes of themselves in idioms and that is basically it; a fossil word is a word that is only ever used in the context of an idiom and never, or rarely ever (we do so love an exception to the rule in when it comes to our English Language) used elsewhere.

There are quite a few fossil words out there and we use them without thinking, how many of these have you used?


Definition: Behave uncontrollably and disruptively.

Idiom: To run amok

Do we ever walk amok? Skip amok? I know I never have; it seems that the only time anyone ever does anything amok, is when they are running.


Definition: make a noisy biting or chewing action.

Idiom: To champ at the bit

I am surprised that we don’t use this more often because I am certain I am not the only one who sits on public transport listening to someone as they champ away merrily right in my ear.


Definition: In great suspense; very anxiously or excitedly.

Idiom: With bated breath.

Not to be confused with baited, which has an entirely different meaning; I cannot think of a single other use of the word bated.


Definition: A state of agitation or fuss.

Idiom: Much ado about nothing

This is one of those words that owes its survival to a certain Mr Shakespeare. I wonder if we would even use this in an idiom if it were not for his play of the same name?


Definition: from Old Norse frá (see fro).

Idiom: To and fro.

Can you even fro without to-ing first?


Definition: A dent or hollow in a surface.

Idiom: By dint of

Hold on.. Now I know what dint means, the idiom doesn’t make any sense whatsoever?  Oh here we go, archaic: By way/means of. That’s better.


Definition: The more distant part of the sea in view.

Idiom: In the offing.

Here is one of our famed exceptions to the rule; offing is still used today but predominantly in maritime circles and it is a rare thing indeed to hear a ‘landlubber’ refer to the horizon as the offing.


Definition: A small bomb made of a metal or wooden box filled with powder, used to blast down a door or to make a hole in a wall.

Idiom: Hoist with one’s own petard.

So to be hoist by one’s own petard literally means to blow oneself up; or in these days of fewer bombs and greater faux pas to cause oneself damage with something intended to cause harm to another.


Definition: Energy; enthusiasm.

Idiom: Vim and vigour.

Can one have vim without vigour? Is being slightly energetic having vim?


Definition: A matter, operation, or set of circumstances.

Idiom: The whole shebang.

Are shebangs available in half measures? Can I have a quarter of a shebang, or an eighth? Perhaps half a dozen shebangs? No? OK then.


Definition: Cause (a large amount of damage or harm).

Idiom: Wreak havoc.

I don’t believe it is possible to wreak anything but havoc is it?


Definition: One’s relations.

Idiom: Kith and kin.

Are kith different to kin? Perhaps our close family could be kin and then wider family can be our kith; whatever the difference may be we still have our kinfolk but never our kithfolk.

There are so many examples of fossil words that I could have gone on forever with these; Spick and span, riddance, shrift, wedlock and, a favourite of mine, immemorial to name but a few. Do you have a favourite that we have not mentioned? Let us know in the comments.

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  • David Chorley says:

    You are wrong about petard: it is a derivative of the French verb _peter_ (pronounced pet/e)
    Which means to fart. Being hoist by your own petard means being lifted up by your own fart.

  • silvia persico says:

    There is also “Without further ado”, “VIM” is Latin for strength

  • Simon says:

    Petard was a fart and became an explosive Dave and it this context we can be sure that explosive was meant buy looking at the quote that originated the phrase. “For tis the sport to have the [Military] enginer Hoist with his owne petard.”

    But Surely “bated” just means stopped or paused as in the word abated. waiting with bated breath is holding your breath as you wait.

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