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Fossilized words are embedded in our language

April, 2009

The English language is littered with thousands of archaic words. Some have pleasant connotations, such as “franion,” which the OED defines as a “gay reckless fellow,” and “halch,” which means “embrace.”

These words, for better or worse, have flickered out. Alas, words are organic. They are born, they live and they die. Sometimes, however, words don’t quite expire but enjoy a vestigial existence by being employed in an expression or a hyphenated word.

For example, while the word “kith” has probably been uttered recently by a romantic lisper, the OED documents that its last usage without its partner “kin” was in 1848. “Kith” is an old word first used in 1000 AD to refer to one’s friends and countrymen. Similarly, “kilter” is an archaic word that referred to the “good condition” of something, and nowadays is only employed in the negative sense of something being “out of kilter” or “off kilter.” The last attestation of “caboodle” in the OED without “kit” was in 1923. “Caboodle” appears to be a corruption of “boodle,” which developed in the 1830s in America to refer to the “whole lot.” By the end of the 19th century this usage was all but extinct.

One can only be in “cahoots” (never in “cahoot”) with someone in some devious partnership, but the word “cahoot” developed in the southwest of the United States in the early 19th century as a form of the archaic Scottish word cahute which meant “cabin,” or “poor hut.” We only talk about new fangled things, but “fangled” never really enjoyed a separate existence in our language. The OED says that the both the noun and verb “fangle” had the sense of “fashion,” but this arose from a mistaken analysis of newfangled, later form of newfangle, “eager for novelty.” The “fangle” part of this word derived from the Old English fangol, “inclined to take.”

The word “dudgeon” is only employed when attached to “high” and sometimes “great” or “deep,” and it refers to intense irritability. Similarly, “shrift” is only available when married to “short.”’ Shakespeare, however, had other options for the word. In Measure for Measure, the Duke says, “I will give him a present shrift, and advise him for a better place.” In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s nurse asks her young mistress, “Have you got leave to go to shrift today?” “Shrift” referred to the confession of sins and the granting of absolution, so to receive “short shrift” meant one wasn’t getting the attention one merited. In Old English, “short shrift” referred to an even more precarious situation and this was alluded to by Shakespere’s Duke. It referred to the short period of time allotted someone about to be executed to say their confession. The past participle of “shrift” was “shriven,” and this word lives on in the associated adjective “shrove” as in Shrove Tuesday.

There are many words featured in expressions or hyphenated words that may appear to be familiar as they have homographs in our language. Originally one would pay a “scot” for some service and particularly one related to entertainment. Later, the term was applied to the payment of a local tax that was levied based on the financial means of the inhabitant. So just as today there is no free lunch, in days of yore, there was no “scot-free.” The word “hue,” as in “hue and cry,” does not refer to shading but to the outcry of a multitude. It derived from the Old French huer, “to hoot.” Similarly, the word “pale,” as in “beyond the pale,” is an old word for “stake.” “Poke,” as in the to-be-avoided purchase of a “pig in a poke,” is an old word for a “small sack,” and this sense lives on in the word’s diminutive “pocket. ”The term “poke,” I am told, is still used as a term for a bag in some parts of the American South, and according to the OED, in Scotland “applied to the bags or wallets in which a … beggar carried provisions and portable property.”

While some words with negative connotations have become extinct, one old word survives only in a negative form. “Couth” until the 16th century was a word that meant “known.” The reverse process, however, can occur. The word “ept” is a back-formation of “inept” first recorded in a letter written by author E.B.White in 1938: “I am much obliged to you for your warm, courteous, and ept treatment of a rather weak, skinny subject.”

A rather “ane” word, if you ask me.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?



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