12 Old Words That Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms

miss_j/iStock/Getty Images Plus
miss_j/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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 them because they were lucky enough to get stuck in set phrases that have lasted across the centuries. Here are 12 words that survived by getting fossilized in idioms.

1. Wend

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.

2. Deserts

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.

3. Eke

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.

4. Sleight

"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.

5. Dint

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.

6. Roughshod

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.

7. Fro

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).

8. Hue

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.

9. Kith

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.

10. Lurch

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.

11. Umbrage

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.

12. Shrift

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.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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