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Much ado about fossil words

By Curtis Honeycutt

If you want to feel old, try explaining how we used to watch TV to a 10-year-old. “In days of yore, you couldn’t skip the commercials or pause the show. You just had to watch what was on when it was on. Yes, that’s how we watched TV in the 10th century.” You’ll feel like a complete fossil.

We have some English words that seem like fossils, yet, like those of us born in the last century, they keep a death grip on life. These words are called “fossil words.”

A fossil word tends to show up in a particular idiom or phrase, but we don’t use that word in any other context. Take the word “turpitude,” for instance. Outside of the phrase “moral turpitude,” you never see it. Turpitude has been fossilized with “moral,” and I don’t see it breaking free anytime soon.

Although it means “to dish out,” the word “wreak” rarely shows up outside of the phrase “wreak havoc.” Occasionally someone in an old medieval story wreaks vengeance, but “wreak” is almost always joined at the hip with “havoc.” Be careful not to confuse “wreak” with “reek,” as these homophones could really trip you up (and leave you all stinky).

Here’s another tricky fossil word that moonlights as a homophone: bated. It means “to diminish or lessen.” You never hear someone say, “Frank, you have really bated your waistline; you must be exercising!” Of course we don’t hear that, because the word “bated” is fossilized next to the word “breath.” Frank waited with bated breath to see the number on the scale. Just don’t “bait” anyone’s breath; I’m not really sure what that would mean.

You may have noticed a fossil word in the first paragraph. When the creaky-boned 30-something was explaining the old ways of TV to the youngster, he used the phrase “days of yore.” I can’t believe it, but we have yet another homophone on our hands. Please get your “yore,” “you’re” and “your” correct or people will think you’re dumb. The word “yore” means “long ago,” and you’ll never hear it outside the phrase “days of yore.” I dare you to use this fossil word outside its traditional phrase!

In addition to the fossil words already discussed, you’ll also discover that “hither,” “amok,” “inclement,” “ado,” “eke,” “beck,” “champing” and “knell” have been cemented inside other phrases. I’ll bet if you pay attention, you’ll find fossil words not only hither and thither, but also to and fro.

—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.

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