12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms
English has changed a lot in the last several hundred years, and there are many words once used that we would no longer recognize today. For whatever reason, we started pronouncing them differently, or stopped using them entirely, and they became obsolete. There are some old words, however, that are nearly obsolete, but we still recognize because they were lucky enough to get stuck in set phrases that have lasted across the centuries. Here are 12 lucky words that survived by getting fossilized in idioms.
You rarely see a "wend" without a "way." You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. "Wend" was just another word for "go" in Old English. The past tense of "wend" was "went" and the past tense of "go" was "gaed." People used both until the 15th century, when "go" became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where "went" hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.
The "desert" from the phrase "just deserts" is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for "deserve," and it was used in English from the 13th century to mean "that which is deserved." When you get your just deserts, you get your due. In some cases, that may mean you also get dessert, a word that comes from a later French borrowing.
If we see "eke" at all these days, it's when we "eke out" a living, but it comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow. It's the same word that gave us "eke-name" for "additional name," which later, through misanalysis of "an eke-name" became "nickname."
"Sleight of hand" is one tricky phrase. "Sleight" is often miswritten as "slight" and for good reason. Not only does the expression convey an image of light, nimble fingers, which fits well with the smallness implied by "slight," but an alternate expression for the concept is "legerdemain," from the French léger de main," literally, "light of hand." "Sleight" comes from a different source, a Middle English word meaning "cunning" or "trickery." It's a wily little word that lives up to its name.
"Dint" comes from the oldest of Old English where it originally referred to a blow struck with a sword or other weapon. It came to stand for the whole idea of subduing by force, and is now fossilized in our expression "by dint of X" where X can stand for your charisma, hard work, smarts, or anything you can use to accomplish something else.
Nowadays we see this word in the expression "to run/ride roughshod" over somebody or something, meaning to tyrannize or treat harshly. It came about as a way to describe the 17th century version of snow tires. A "rough-shod" horse had its shoes attached with protruding nail heads in order to get a better grip on slippery roads. It was great for keeping the horse on its feet, but not so great for anyone the horse might step on.
The "fro" in "to and fro" is a fossilized remnant of a Northern English or Scottish way of pronouncing "from." It was also part of other expressions that didn't stick around, like "fro and till," "to do fro" (to remove), and "of or fro" (for or against).
The "hue" of "hue and cry," the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd, is not the same "hue" as the term we use for color. The color one comes from the Old English word híew, for "appearance." This hue comes from the Old French hu or heu, which was basically an onomatopoeia, like "hoot."
The "kith" part of "kith and kin" came from an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance. It also stood for native land or country, the place you were most familiar with. The expression "kith and kin" originally meant your country and your family, but later came to have the wider sense of friends and family.
When you leave someone "in the lurch," you leave them in a jam, in a difficult position. But while getting left in the lurch may leave you staggering around and feeling off-balance, the "lurch" in this expression has a different origin than the staggery one. The balance-related lurch comes from nautical vocabulary, while the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score. By extension it came to stand for the state of getting the better of someone or cheating them.
"Umbrage" comes from the Old French ombrage (shade, shadow), and it was once used to talk about actual shade from the sun. It took on various figurative meanings having to do with doubt and suspicion or the giving and taking of offense. To give umbrage was to offend someone, to "throw shade." However, these days when we see the term "umbrage" at all, it is more likely to be because someone is taking, rather than giving it.
We might not know what a shrift is anymore, but we know we don't want to get a short one. "Shrift" was a word for a confession, something it seems we might want to keep short, or a penance imposed by a priest, something we would definitely want to keep short. But the phrase "short shrift" came from the practice of allowing a little time for the condemned to make a confession before being executed. So in that context, shorter was not better.