Fossil words



My son asks me a question: “What is a bygone?”

Initially I am delighted to be asked. As a fifteen year old, the Best Boy in the World largely now tells me things. How technology works. Which groups are cool right now. What dub steps are. A modern beat combo, m’lud.

Those days are long gone when Daddy would sit on the story chair to tell him bedtime stories about the wonderful world outside the curtains. Now he looks up from his i-phone and communicates by grunt and wafts of testosterone.

But I digress. Exciting times. We have a question to answer. What is a bygone?

I hmmm and harr. A bygone is … um … a bygone. It’s a thing that has gone by. Something in the past. There’s a saying “Let bygones be bygones”. We talk about “a bygone age”. Um.

The boy doesn’t look convinced. “Yes, but what does it mean?”

So I try to think of a sentence with “bygone” in it, that wasn’t “let bygones be bygones” or “a bygone age”. And I fail utterly.

It seems that the word only exists in those two phrases. It’s almost impossible to use it anywhere else. That is weird. It’s like a zombie word. A living fossil. It ought to be dead, but somehow it isn’t.

And that got me thinking. What other words have died away as words, but still persist in the language as part of a phrase?

That led me to “hoist with his own petard”, from Hamlet no less. What on earth is a “petard”?

Apparently, a petard was a primitive bomb which was used to blow holes in walls, doors and fortifications. In the phrase “hoist” means to be lifted up. So “hoist with his own petard” means “blown up with his own bomb”.

According to senor Google, petard is still in common usage in Malta where it is a home-made firework used to celebrate saints’ days.

Then we have “umble pie”. Yes, I did mean umble and not humble. Umbles are the innards of a deer, from the French word numbles. Being forced to eat umble pie meant that you had to eat a common person’s food.

But over time “numble” became “umble”. Then “umble” became “humble”. And now we have “humble pie” and most people don’t realise that it originally meant ucky bloody bits of offal and not humility.

Or take the word “ruthless”. We all know what that means, but let’s pause for a second. What is “ruth”? If ruthless is the absence of ruth, what is ruth on its own? Can we be ruthful?

Again we whisper in the ear of Herr Google von Googleheim. And he says that ruth comes from the verb “to rue”, as in to feel remorse or regret. But ruth or ruthful have died out.

It seems to be a form of Darwinian selection. Words survive if we find them useful. They go extinct if we no longer have a use for them.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a word staggers on like the walking dead.

What does all this mean? Heck, I don’t know. There are no deep philosophical conclusions to this one. It’s just a bit of fun. We can take pleasure from the gloriously messy and organic treasure of our language.

We might also point out that two of our four phrases (“let bygones be bygones” and “hoist with his own petard”) survive because they are from Shakespeare plays.

Interesting, no?


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