What Are Fossil Words, And What Are Some Examples?

Sometimes words only live in very specific circumstances.
What Are Fossil Words, And What Are Some Examples?

Words, like any living things, are born and can die. Well, “die” might not be the most apt term, but words definitely fall out of use given enough time. Some last quite a while, some evolve into other words and some simply vanish from existence. In certain rare cases, though, a word will almost disappear, but stick around in very specific circumstances. When that happens, they become fossil words.

Generally, fossil words stick around because of a common idiom. For example, you might be “champing at the bit” for something to happen. The word “champing,” though, is extinct outside of this one circumstance. You never “champ” any other item. Like a mosquito encased in amber, fossil words are stuck. 

Surprisingly, fossil words are extremely common. We gathered together some of the most common ones and discovered what these words originally meant. 

Examples Of English Fossil Words

champing

Phrase: champing at the bit (excited for something)

Definition: This is just a variation of “chomping.” Often, people will in fact say “chomping at the bit” instead, but this is considered an eggcorn, which is a language mistake often caused because someone has heard an idiom incorrectly.

vim

Phrase: vim and vigor (full of life)

Definition: Energy, excitement. But you’d never say someone is full of just “vim.”

kith

Phrase: kith and kin (friends and family)

Definition: a person’s friends, acquaintances and basically anyone you know who isn’t covered by “kin.” Kith has also found a second life as the name of a retail establishment.

loggerheads

Phrase: at loggerheads (in a heated, dead-locked dispute)

Definition: a foolish person. Today, the word only survives as the name of a certain breed of turtle, a certain breed of bird and a few locations in England. It’s not entirely clear how “at loggerheads” started referring to two people having a disagreement.

deserts

Phrase: just deserts (to get what one deserves)

Definition: what one deserves. Sometimes — but rarely — someone will refer to “deserts” without the “just,” yet they’re almost always a pairing. The fact that “deserts” (the comeuppance) is pronounced differently from “deserts” (the biome) leads many people to mistake it for “just desserts.”

wedlock

Phrase: out of wedlock (in a state of not being married)

Definition: in a state of being married. This word fell out of fashion because it’s simple enough to say that someone is married or not. But the euphemistic phrase “a child born out of wedlock” (which is still frowned upon in many parts of the world) has kept this word alive.

shebang

Phrase: the whole shebang (all of it)

Definition: a set of circumstances. But no one really talks about anything except the whole shebang. This word also has an archaic meaning of “a hut,” which you also aren’t likely to hear.

knell

Phrase: death knell (a sign of the end of something)

Definition: the sound of a funerary bell. Historically, people would literally ring a bell to alert the world that someone has died. Sometimes this was called a “passing bell” or a “death bell.” This isn’t a particularly common practice anymore, but it lives on in this idiom.

dint

Phrase: by dint of (by means of)

Definition: force, power. At one point, this word could also be used interchangeably with “dent.”

dudgeon

Phrase: in high dudgeon (enraged)

Definition: a state of indignation. No one seems to be in low dudgeon anymore, though.

hither

Phrase: hither and thither (all over the place), hither and yon (in disparate directions), come hither (come here, usually seductively)

Definition: toward this place. “Hither” is one of the rare fossil words that has survived in multiple different phrases. In most other contexts, “hither” is pretty easily replaced by “here,” which is similar but not the same. “Here” refers to an exact location, but “hither” refers to a direction toward an exact location.

petard

Phrase: hoist by their own petard (to be destroyed by your own weapon)

Definition: a small bomb. “Hoist” also isn’t particularly common, and it means “to be raised” (usually by pulleys, but sometimes by a petard). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the works of William Shakespeare are the source of a number of idioms that hold fossil words. The phrase “hoist with his own petard” was originally used in a speech in Hamlet.

caboodle

Phrase: kit and caboodle (the whole thing)

Definition: unlike most other words on this list, caboodle is a born fossil. That means it never had any meaning outside of this specific phrase. That’s because the phrase was taken fully from Middle Dutch, which has the phrase kitte en boedel. It was originally adopted as “kit and boodle,” but in the interest of alliteration it was changed to “kit and caboodle.”

ken

Phrase: beyond one’s ken (outside of one’s knowledge)

Definition: a person’s knowledge. While this word is not very common in English, you’ll find it in Scots as a verb meaning “to know.”

bated

Phrase: with bated breath (awaiting eagerly or anxiously)

Definition: lessened in strength. This is another word that was fossilized by William Shakespeare, this time in The Merchant of Venice. It’s actually a shortening of the verb “abated,” which has survived to today. “Bated” is also often the victim of eggcorns, being spelled as “baited,” not that “baited breath” makes any more sense than “bated breath.”

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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