Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The construction of a high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham has been beset by delays and controversy, but the project – generally referred to as HS2 – is now going ahead. Before the main building work starts in 2020, however, archaeologists are undertaking what has been described as the largest excavation ever to take place in the UK, investigating more than 60 sites along the route and removing artefacts and other remains – including tens of thousands of skeletons from old burial grounds – for further analysis and, in the case of the skeletons, re-burial.

An archaeological excavation is commonly referred to as a dig and when someone is doing this you can say they are on a dig. The noun has two other common senses: a dig at someone is a critical remark or joke, while a dig at part of someone’s body is a poke, often in order to get their attention. The plural noun digs, now rather old-fashioned, refers to a rented room or flat.

Most meanings of the verb refer literally or metaphorically to the process of moving, searching and uncovering, whether this is soil, an object or information. The informal hippyish sense meaning to like something is now somewhat old-fashioned. Dig also forms many phrasal verbs, links to which can be found at the bottom of the verb entry.

Dig is part of several idiomatic phrases, such as dig your heels in, meaning to refuse to do something that people want you to do, dig your own grave, meaning to do something that will cause serious problems for you in the future, and dig a hole for yourself, meaning create a difficult or embarrassing situation as a result of your own actions. This last one is sometimes expressed in a slightly different way, so if someone persists blindly in making an already bad situation worse, people might say When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

Relations between the science of archaeology and the hobby of using a metal detector to search for buried artefacts have not always been of the friendliest, although hobbyists have made some remarkable finds over the years. This clip from the BBC series Detectorists gives an idea of the hobby’s appeal to those who practise it.

The origin of dig is uncertain; it may come from the Old English word ‘dīc’, meaning ‘ditch’.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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