Responses to one of my recent posts brought up two interesting related issues: misunderstandings about idioms and their origins, and about linguistic terms.
First, numerous readers wrote to Daily Writing Tips recently to inform me that I had misspelled a word in one of the items in “35 Fossil Words”: It’s “just desserts,” not “just deserts,” to refer to getting what you deserve, I was told.
But as I noted in this post last year, deserts is commonly misspelled desserts in this idiomatic phrase; years ago (perhaps influenced by the name of a bakery called Just Desserts), I, too, had long assumed that the latter spelling was correct. The word, however, is related to deserve, though except for occasional use of the singular form in legal documents, it is unknown outside the idiom and the phrase “get (one’s) just deserts” and its truncated version, “get (one’s) deserts.”
Many idioms are similarly misunderstood; another example, also listed in my recently posted roster of fossil words, is “beck and call.” In a post on my esteemed colleague Mignon Fogarty’s popular website Quick and Dirty Grammar Tips, numerous commenters insisted with variously amusing and alarming self-righteousness that — despite definitive linguistic documentation of the idiom — the correct phrasing is “beckon call” (what kind of call? a beckon call) or “beck or call” (because, honestly, why would somebody both beck and call?). (Thanks to Daily Writing Tips visitor Roberta for the link.)
The post you’re reading right now is intended not to ridicule people who misunderstand idiom (after all, a couple of paragraphs up, I admitted doing so myself, and I am not prone to self-ridicule), but it is intended to drop a hint to those who might doggedly cling to dogma, stubbornly misapprehending a word or phrase’s source. Many elements of English are of uncertain etymological or syntactical origin, but most are well attested, and corroboration is a simple matter of looking something up online or in print. A bumper sticker word to the wise: Don’t believe everything you think.
The related issue is the term “fossil words.” Some Daily Writing Tips readers took exception to that phrase and to my definition of such terms as those that “survive only in isolated usage,” arguing that they employ some or many of the listed words. (Does that mean, more than one person asked, that that makes the correspondent a fossil?) However, note that the definition of the titular phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A word or other linguistic form preserved only in isolated regions or in set phrases, idioms, or collocations.”
By “isolated usage,” I meant not “frequency of use” but “scope of use”; these words are rarely, if ever, uttered other than as part of the idiomatic phrases they are associated with. When was the last time you used bated other than in the expression “bated breath,” or mettle when it was not preceded by something like “test your”? If you can tick off the occasions on your fingertips, you likely have a season pass to a Renaissance fair. And to that I say, “Huzzah!”