Extinct forms of life are documented in the fossil record. Obsolete forms of language are documented in what are known as linguistic fossils. Some of these fossils can be found in everday English.
Linguistic fossils are not preserved texts or audio recordings – they are features that were once common in a language but have now disappeared except in specific phrases. Here are seven fossil words you probably understand perfectly, without realizing that they are actually peeks into archaic forms of English.
To say something moves “to and fro” is to say it moves constantly from side to side, up and down, or back to front. To say a person goes “to and fro” implies a similar sense of back-and-forth motion, whether physical or metaphorical. But what exactly is fro?
It used to be an adjective meaning, among other things, away. In some Scottish varieties of English fro survives as a fully functioning word, but in other types of English, fro fell out of favor around the sixteenth century and now is appears only as a fossil in “to and fro.”
Cobweb, meaning “spider web,” is a fully functioning word in contemporary English – but it contains a fossil. Cob, or cop, is an obsolete term for a spider. Actually, it’s a shortened version of an even older word, attercop, which was a term for a spider and which literally meant “poison head.” (If there are any Lord of the Rings fans out there, The Annotated Hobbit says that yes, that is where J.R.R. Tolkien got Attercop’s name from.)
Chances are you’ve never heard this word outside the phrase “short shrift.” These days, to give short shrift to someone is to give them inadequate consideration. However, from the eleventh century through the nineteenth, shrift has various meanings connected to the confession of sins to a priest. Depending on context, shrift could refer to an instance of confession, a thing confessed, a confessor, or a penance assigned by the priest after the confession.
The phrase “short shrift” originally meant the brief time in which a criminal could make a confession before being executed. This meaning, though – like all the confession-related definitions – has been lost to the ages.
Occasionally, you may hear of a person or group of people that “ekes out a living,” meaning they barely make enough to survive. Eke used to be a much more common word, though. As a verb it had several meanings that were variations on “to extend,” as a noun it meant “an addition,” and as an adverb it mean “also.”
Technically, eke does sort of show up in another common word. Nickname derives from eke-name, meaning “also (or other) name.” But as far as eke itself goes, you’ll only run into it occasionally in its fossilized form (unless you delve into some Chaucer [link] – in his Middle English work, eke is everywhere!)
Unless you live in Scotland or possibly Northern England it’s unlikely that you use ado much in your everyday speech. For hundreds of years, though, it was a natural word to use when you wanted to say something like “activity,” “fuss,” or “difficulty,” but these days, it’s rare outside of phrases like “without further ado,” or, occasionally “much ado about nothing.”
Yore once meant something like “a long time ago,” and it still does, sort of – when used in phrases like “days of yore.” But can you imagine saying something like “In England I have dwelled yore?” According to The Oxford English Dictionary, that was apparently a perfectly normal sentence in 1522. Now, though, yore hardly ever appears outside its fossilized place in “of yore.”
Okay, this one isn’t exactly a fossil, since the word red is part of everyday English. But have you ever wondered why we say “red hair” to describe hair that’s really orange? It’s because English speakers started describing orange-haired people well before English had a word for orange.
As this video explains, languages generally develop words for other colors in a fairly predictable pattern, and orange is usually one of the last colors to gain a word.
According to linguist Gretchen McCulloch, there weren’t many orange-colored objects, in England, until the arrival of oranges around 1300. The word orange came to mean the color, not just the fruit, in the 1540s. By the time orange was established as a color word, people had been describing orange hair as red for centuries, and this older usage has stuck around to this day. There weren’t many orange-colored objects, in England, until the arrival of oranges around 1300. The word orange came to mean the color, not just the fruit, in the 1540s. By the time orange was established as a color word, people had been describing orange hair as red for centuries, and this older usage has stuck around to this day.
Next time you come across – or even catch yourself saying or writing – one of these fossils, you’ll be able to recognize them subtle links to people who spoke the language hundreds of years ago.