35 Fossil Words

By Mark Nichol

background image 183

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”)

Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!

Keep learning! Browse the Vocabulary category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:


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.

Leave a comment: