Fossil Words / / a guest post by Amy Cooper

Today, I’m proud to be sharing a guest post from Amy Cooper, who is currently working on her MA in Medieval Literatures and Languages at the University of York in England.

As an anthropologist, it’s super cool for me to hear about the ways in which words tie us back to old forms of sociality which, while no longer part of our everyday lives, are still in some way sedimented into our language. I hope you enjoy her take on Fossil Words. More Old and Middle English adventures are also to come!

‘Fossil Words’ are words once in common usage in English, which now only survive dialectically or idiomatically. Often we use fossil words in idioms without actually thinking about what they mean, or where they might have come from. They exist as an interplay between the past and the present; an example of something that has been part-inherited, and is thus part of our heritage.

There are a wide variety of fossil words, some better known than others. A firm favourite of mine is ‘helter-skelter’, with ‘skelter’ from the Middle English skelten (“to hasten”) and ‘helter’ added probably because the onomatopoeia makes the word more evocative of the sensation of travelling in a spiral very quickly! However, rarer ones have remained in some technical usage, such as ‘neap tide’, or the lowest tide, which is a literal translation of the Old English nepflod meaning ‘scant tide’.

A 1705 reproduction of the Rune Poem by George Hickes

The poem below uses inspiration from the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem to describe modern fossil words which seem foreign to us out-of-context, and which have words which were originally Old English.

The poem is also a ‘learning’ poem in a similar way to the Rune Poem, in that it gives us both the modern meaning of the idiom, whilst also referencing its past meaning. The poem is thus structured carefully; the first line gives the word, and its modern idiomatic other half or meaning (see ‘Beck and call’ or ‘Dint and effort’), the second line gives an interpretation of the original meaning of the Old English root word (see heart-offering for Shrive, or scrifan), and the third line is an elaboration of the overall meaning.

The compact nature of the poem is deliberate, intended to give the idea of small ‘nuggets’ of information in the same way that a fossil might be excavated.

Dint, a worthwhile effort
Endeavour and effect.

Shrive, well-prescribed 
A short death-confession.

Spick, and glistening span 
Cleaved cleanly.

Wend, and winding way,
Sinuous path-shifter
Round rod and river.

Wreak, the head of havoc,
And the worker of war. 

Wrought, an iron-monger,
The ancient craftsman.

fun additional reading:
on the Rune Poem:

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