At some point we’ve all given someone short shrift, or they’ve given us short shrift, meaning “a firm and immediate refusal to do something in a sympathetic way”. Apart from this transaction, though, we’ve probably never done anything else with shrift – Macmillan Dictionary’s definition shows that it normally appears only in that sole phrase. As Arika Okrent recently wrote: “We might not know what a shrift is anymore, but we know we don’t want to get a short one.”
Similarly, we may wait with bated breath for something in the offing, but it’s unlikely that anything else in our experience is ever bated, or that we’ve made any other use of the noun offing. (Unless we’re sailors; offing can mean the part of the deep sea visible from the shore.)
These words are known as fossil words, because although they are no longer productive in the language – their creative capacity is not in fine fettle – they have been preserved in set phrases, idioms and contexts. Like physical fossils, they offer a glimpse of earlier times, throwing a light on language from days of yore.
English has quite a few fossil words, testifying to the effectiveness of the expressions that have housed them from time immemorial. They don’t always monopolize the word in question: searching for immemorial we find other uses extant (e.g., “an immemorial philosophical problem”), but the fossilised use predominates.
In other cases, the fossil is the sole survivor or virtually so. Petard occurs almost exclusively in the expression hoist with/by your own petard, meaning “suffering as a result of your attempt to harm someone else”. Many people use it without knowing (or needing to know) that petard is an obscure word for a type of explosive. Consider this exchange in Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff’s story Simple Gifts:
“Can’t we just let Vlad and his ego get hoist by their own petard?”
Rhys eyed him wryly. “Do you even know what a petard is, Roddy?”
“No, but you’re not going to let him get hoist by one, are you?”
And it’s not just words that get fossilised: phrases and sentences do too, like if need be, come what may, and be that as it may. Lines such as “Till death do us part” and “Long live the Queen/King” also stand a good chance of long-term preservation because they are closely tied to ritual or tradition, while proverbs can last centuries by dint of their storing a piece of wisdom or common sense that applies to everyday situations. We all have a few fossils at our beck and call.Email this Post