John Larrysson's Column: Fossil Words

A fossil is "a remnant, impression, or trace of an organism of past geologic ages that has been preserved in the earth's crust". (Merriam-Webster) Most fossils are of plants and animals, however the English language has fossils too. Fossil words are traces of earlier forms of English buried in set phrases that have come down into the modern age. These fossil words are used, but are very difficult or impossible to find in most regular dictionaries. They are used in idioms and other set phrases, but rarely on their own.

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Consider this sentence: "The official denials are what our readers get to see – the carefully formulated statements written in government press offices often after a period of to and fro." (Peter Beaumont, The Guardian, I tried to expose the truth about MI6 and torture – but was lied to, 1 Jul 2018) The word fro means to go backwards or away from, originally it was from the Old Norse word fra meaning from. The word is rarely used except in the idiom to go to and fro. The idiom describes an activity where people go backwards and forwards repeatedly, such as in walking, sports, shopping or trying to get information out of stubborn government officials. 

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Consider this headline: "Trump's Syria strike justification shows executive branch run amok" (Washington Examiner, 15 Jun 2018) To run amok is a fixed idiomatic phrase. No one will ever walk amok; the word amok is not used on its own in English. It is from the Malay amoq (adjective) meaning fighting furiously. Today the phrase run amok means to behave in a violent or destructive and uncontrolled manner.

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Consider this headline: "Steve Bannon, innovator in weaponized news, is hoist with his own petard". (Keith Boag, CBC News, Aug 18, 2017) If one knows that a petard is a small bomb in use about 400 years ago, it does not help one to understand the headline. (Neither does it help to know that the word petard is from the Middle French péter meaning to fart or break wind.) The English idiom to be hoist with one's own petard is from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Originally to be hoist with one's own petard was used to mean to be blown up with one's own bomb. (Which was a common occurrence, the job of being a petardier was very dangerous.) Now it is a metaphor for being hurt by one's own plan. Other than historians and fireworks makers, few people ever use the word petard, by itself.

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Fossil words are still used as part of an idiom and never, or rarely, used elsewhere. Idioms should be treated as words and remembered as an unchanging set phrase. Fossil words are just part of that set phrase. Don’t try to use fossil words elsewhere, unless you want to confuse people. As with idioms, fossil words should be recognised and managed. However it is best to avoid using them with second-language learners, in business contracts or any time clarity is more important than language art.

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by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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