Fossil word

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A fossil word is a word that is broadly obsolete but remains in current use due to its presence within an idiom.[1][2]

Fossil status can also occur for word senses and for phrases. An example for a word sense is 'navy' in 'merchant navy', which means 'commercial fleet' (although that sense of navy is obsolete elsewhere). An example for a phrase is 'in point' (relevant), which is retained in the larger phrases 'case in point' (also 'case on point' in the legal context) and 'in point of fact', but is rarely used outside of a legal context.

English-language examples[edit]

"Born fossils"[edit]

These words were formed from other languages, by elision, or by mincing of other fixed phrases.

  • caboodle, as in "kit and caboodle" (a "born fossil" in that "kit and caboodle" evolved from "kit and boodle", which itself was a fixed phrase borrowed as a unit from Dutch kitte en boedel)
  • druthers, as in "if I had my druthers..." (note that "druthers" is a "born fossil", having been formed by elision from "would rather"[10] and never occurring outside the listed phrase to begin with)
  • tarnation, as in "what in tarnation...?" (a "born fossil" in that it evolved only in the context of fixed phrases formed by mincing of previously fixed phrases that include the term "damnation")

See also[edit]


  1. ^ fossil. Additions Series, 1993 (Second Edition, 1989 ed.). Oxford English Dictionary. A word or other linguistic form preserved only in isolated regions or in set phrases, idioms, or collocations
  2. ^ Curme, George Oliver (1931). Syntax. D. C. Heath and Company.
  3. ^ Quinion, Michael. World Wide Words
  4. ^ "the definition of helter-skelter".
  5. ^ Yahoo dictionary kith and kin Archived 2011-06-06 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Phrase Finder at loggerheads
  7. ^ Phrase Finder in the offing
  8. ^ "Starting Off With a Sha-Bang". Retrieved 2016-12-02.
  9. ^ Martin, Gary. "'Short shrift' – the meaning and origin of this phrase".
  10. ^ "druthers". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2017-10-04.