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.

9 French Insults You Should Know

Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images
Rawf8/iStock via Getty Images

Ah, France—internationally synonymous with fine wines, fashion, and elegant cheeses. As it turns out, the country is home to some pretty fine insults, too, as the list below demonstrates. If you need some more ways to express your distaste in a foreign language, we've also got you covered with insults in German. (If historical insults are more your speed, you can peruse these old English insults, or learn how to level a sick burn like Teddy Roosevelt.)

1. Va te faire cuire un oeuf // "Go cook yourself an egg."

Figuratively speaking, this means “leave me alone.” Historically, the idea is that men would criticize their wives cooking dinner, who would then respond, "Go fry yourself an egg"—reminding their mates that they're incapable of cooking anything other than an egg.

2. Bête comme ses pieds // "You are as stupid as your feet."

The feet are the furthest part of the body from the brain, so supposedly, the most stupid. Besides, have you ever seen smart feet?

3. Péter plus haut de son cul // "To fart higher than your ass."

If you have gas in your stomach and try to expel it above your behind, you will fail. It's just too ambitious. This phrase means that a person is arrogant, or thinks they are able to do impossible things. They're a show-off, basically.

4. Poule mouillée // "Wet chicken"

Chickens are not known for their bravery. Especially when it rains, they try to hide, as ridiculous as that may be. A wet chicken is someone who is afraid of everything.

5. Mange tes morts // "Eat your dead."

You use this insult when you are very mad at someone. The original meaning is "You have no respect." It's said to have started among the Yenish people—a European ethnic minority with nomadic origins.

6. Sac à merde // "Bag of sh**"

No need for explanation right? Speaks for itself. Often used while driving.

7. Tête de noed // "Knot face"

Someone stupid. Literally, the knot refers to the tip of the penis, but in essence the term has a meaning similar to (but even ruder) than the English dickhead.

8. Couillon/Couillonne // "Little testicle"

A relatively mild insult that means something like "idiot" in English.

9. Con comme une valise sans poignée // "As stupid as a suitcase without a handle."

What good is a suitcase if you can't carry it? In a similar vein, "con comme un balais" means "as dumb as a broom."

15 Slang Terms You Need to Know

iStock/Sashatigar
iStock/Sashatigar

It’s possible to get the pants from too much honeyfuggling. Spark some conversation with these vintage and regional terms.

1. The Term: Hurkle-Durkle

The Definition: According to John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 200 years ago to hurkle-durkle meant “To lie in bed, or to lounge after it is time to get up or go to work.” Basically, that urge we all fight every weekday morning.

2. The Term: Got the Morbs

The Definition: A phrase from 1880 meaning “temporary melancholia,” according to Passing English of the Victorian Era.

3. The Term: Stubby-Holder

The Definition: An Australian slang term for an insulated beverage holder. (A stubby is Aussie for a 375-milliliter bottle of beer, by the way.)

4. The Term: To Poke Bogey

The Definition: A 19th-century slang word for tricking someone. No one’s quite sure where the phrase came from, but it could have its roots in words for ghosts—bogey as in bogeyman, and poke may be related to an old English word for spirit.

5. The Term: Lizzie Lice

The Definition: According to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld, this term for a policeman who patrols in cars dates to the 1930s. You might not want to use it when you get pulled over, though. (Rat bag, for a plainclothes detective, may also be unwise.)

6. The Term: Peerie-Winkie

The Definition: Peerie is an old Scottish word meaning “little,” and a peerie-winkie is the little finger or toe. If you’re looking for a fun way to refer to your hands, use the word daddles.

7. The Term: Got the Pants

The Definition: This phrase, according to Passing English of the Victorian Era, means “panting from over-exertion.” After you take the stairs, you get the pants!

8. The Term: Toad-Strangler

The Definition: Those who live in the Gulf states are probably familiar with this term that describes a sudden, and heavy, rain.

9. The Term: Honeyfuggle

The Definition: This word technically means to deceive or to cheat, but according to the Dictionary of Regional American English, it’s also used for public displays of affection.

10. The Term: Whooperups

The Definition: A Victorian term for “inferior, noisy singers” that is just as applicable at modern-day karaoke joints.

11. The Term: Degomble

The Definition: The Antarctic Dictionary defines this as “to disencumber of snow,” usually when coming in from outside.

12. The Term: Play at Rumpscuttle and Clapperdepouch

The Definition: This 1684 phrase has nothing to do with playing games and everything to do with, uh, getting it on. You can also play at rantum-scantum (1667), couch quail (1521), or tray trippee of a die (1660).

13. The Term: Abstain from Beans

The Definition: Here’s one to keep on hand during family gatherings: According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this is a phrase meaning “to desist from politics.” As Plutarch explained in the circa 110 CE book Of the Training of Children, the term meant “to keep out of public offices” because “anciently the choice of the officers of state was made by beans.” Literally or figuratively, it’s probably a good rule for parties.

14. The Term: Cwtch

The Definition: A very Welsh term for a hug that makes you feel warm inside. (It rhymes with “butch.”)

15. The Term: Hand in One’s Dinner Pail

The Definition: Well, maybe you don’t want an occasion to use this phrase, at least in its original meaning—it’s slang from 1937 for death. Later, the phrase would come to mean “to resign from one’s job; to stop what one is doing.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER