35 Fossil Words

By Mark Nichol

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, or 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 the wreckage of a ship (that term is used elsewhere than in the phrase “flotsam and jetsam” and so is not listed separately here)
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 kin”)
21. Loggerhead: blockhead (“at loggerheads,” meaning blocked, or 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) 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”)

51 Responses to “35 Fossil Words”

  • ken

    Very interesting – but I believe your definition of “craw” to be wrong. It means throat in Scots dialect, and that certainly makes more sense in the usage than stomach, particularly as it is often used in connection with words or actions that are difficult to own up to.

  • Cal

    As a Salopian born and bred, I have to take issue with the definition of ‘Loggerhead’. Check out our Coat of Arms- definitely not turtles!
    Also. shebang, I understood, came from the Irish, and referred to a hut or small swelling.
    Yes, I do use these words all the time, bur recognise that it shows my age!
    In New Zealand, most of these words have never been heard of, or have become so mangled by usage that no-one knows or recognises the origins.

  • venqax

    Well taken, Cindy P. I, too, will consciously use words that tend toward the archaic when they are very useful and have a meaning that no other, more modern word, does especially when the meaning of the stranger word is probably still going to be understood, so no communicative value is lost. Hence, is an exemple. Likewise hitherto, henceforth, heretofore, theretofore, etc. Really preferable to entire phrases like “from now on”, “up till now” or “from that point on”, etc.

    BTW don’t forget iffect– the result of something that might happen and offect– the result of something not being…on.

    “Turning off your DVR or Tivo will have the offect of your show not getting recorded”.

    “Throwing a baseball at the window might have the effect of breaking it, but it definitely has the iffect of that result”.

  • Cindy P

    @ venqax:
    You are absolutely spot on about the meaning of fossilization. I do use hither, thither, whither, hence, thence and whence as useful parts of ordinary sentences, but only when I’m being pretentious. All in fun, of course.

  • Cindy P

    Ah, “desert.” A wonderful word. In the Oxford English Dictionary Unabridged, it commands almost a full page. It gets five definitions as a Noun, four Adjective and four Verb meanings.
    As used in “just deserts,” the word means “Deserving, the becoming worthy of recompense…” It is pronounced like “dessert.” When a patisserie calls itself Just Desserts, it’s punning.

    Shall we move on to “affect” and “effect”? 🙂

  • venqax

    Michael’s post really reinforces rather than contradicts the notion of fossilization. Almost every context in which he uses the words in question are as part of the very constructions in which they are fossilized.

    Maybe the comparison should be taken differrently. The words are not obsolete (which is its own word, used to mean that) as some seem to be taking the meaning, but they tend to be fixed in place, rarely used any longer on their own or in any context outside of fixed idiomatic phrase. Most meet that criterion.

    When since time immemorial has someone said, “I will beck you when I’m done”, “that burger gave me an upset craw”, “walk down the street fro the gas station”, “my house is hither yours”. Or, “the water didn’t have any flotsam at all, but there was a lot of jetsam in it.” “You should always be careful when carrying your petard.” “The doctor says you have vim”. A milling throng pops to my mind when I hear these phrases. Do throngs do anything other than mill? Can you have a quiet and sedate throng? Yes, but not in common English.

  • venqax

    Sue Phillmore

    Really? Try looking it up. Anywhere. Except in something by Margot, Janet or Liz.

  • venqax

    Margot Reiner Janet Seaborg, Liz

    I don’t understand how, when a key point of a post is to correct the misconception that the phrase is “beckon call” or to emphasize that just deserts are just that, you can then argue the mistake without, obviously, doing any research beyond your own misguided conviction, the misguidedness of which is the POINT. This is like a strange variation on question begging.

    Liz, you’ve probably been sayng it right, but spelling it wrong. Deserts in that context, and desserts as in cake, are homonyms.

  • Sue Phillmore

    Have to question #9.
    Unless you deserve rather a lot of sand…….

  • John Howe

    I don’t know about the usage in the States, but in Britain many of these ‘fossil’ words are still in current use. I grant not by the general population but many of them are certainly not fossilised’.

    Amock, Bandy, Batten, Immemorial are used not often but they certainly come up on conversations (batten for builders and DIY-ers of course).
    Ken is also used frequently in Scotland.

  • Karin Magnuson

    Shouldn’t it be spelled “desserts”, not “deserts” as in the Sahara?

  • Gail Hunter

    Does that mean I’m a fossil? Those words shouldn’t be relegated to the archives…they’re visual which is more than I can say for today’s language. And my husband asks, “Whatever happened to ‘Swell’?

    Don’t forget – hang on to your old clothes – broomstick skirts WILL be back in fashion some day – just as the vocabulary of ‘yore’. Do you prefer ‘sequestration’ in your vocabulary?

  • Mark Nichol


    Thanks for the sampling of book titles, but note that these citations don’t contradict the point of this post. Please see this follow-up post.

  • Mark Nichol


    That’s exactly the point. See this follow-up post.

  • Mark Nichol


    The language origin of amok is irrelevant. What is relevant is its idiomatic usage.

  • Karen Newombe

    I would love to see a list of words that have dropped from usage in the recent past, say the last 100 or so years, maybe some of them are not so far gone that we can’t recover them.

  • Jen

    I prefer when one receives one’s just desserts and not one’s just “deserts.”

  • Helen

    I would have called these phrases “frozen expressions” or “fossilized expressions”; I guess the idea is that a “fossil word” is a word that survives only in a specific expression?

    I am surprised to see that others find these expressions typical of the literate. The common false etymology of “beckon call” indicates to me that this phrase at least must be being transmitted orally/aurally rather than by text. Most of these expressions strike me as oral or as oral affectations (for example, children’s books that affect the voice of a storyteller use words like “hither” or “days of yore,” but so do real storytellers).

    I’m curious if “shebang” is really a fossil word like the others. It only arises in a fixed expression, but is it a relic, or a slang neologism? I suggest “caboodle” as an alternative!

  • DC

    I think you mean DESSERT not desert here???
    9. Deserts: excellence or worth, or what is deserved or merited (“just deserts”)

  • Liz

    Shouldn’t it be “dessert”? If not, I’ve been saying it wrong my whole life.

  • AnWulf

    For byspel … Book Titles

    India’s Fighters; Their Mettle, History and Services to Britain – 2010
    Mettle for New Christians – 2008
    Mettle: Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement – 2007
    Chinese Mettle – 2005
    Appalachian Mettle – 1997

    I hardly think that “mettle” is a fossil word.

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