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Finding Fossilized Words in Phrases Frozen in Time

Did that headline peak your interest? Or did it pique it? I'm waiting with baited breath for your answer. Or would that be bated

The correct answers are pique and bate, but if you chose peak or bait, don't feel bad. Sure, some of us may know pique from the phrase "a fit of pique," where it means "annoyance at not being treated properly," but "pique my interest" is increasingly rendered nowadays as "peak my interest" because pique is a word most people don't know. 

All of us have a tendency to replace fossilized words whose nuances have been lost with a more standard definition of that word, or a different word entirely. Through this process, phrases, like words, can change meaning over time. Thus, the bated in "bated breath" (which is a shortened version of abate, meaning "to lessen") starts out mistakenly being analyzed as the more common word with that sound, "baited breath," even if the known definitions of baited don't particularly relate to breath. 

Helping this phrasal change along is the fact that these frozen phrases are often heard and not read, or read in an unfamiliar context, which can lead to confusion about what they mean, particularly when they contain words only encountered in in this one way. One of the definitions of exact, now all but obsolete, is "to demand and obtain something." This is the meaning that exact has in the phrase "exact revenge," but since this meaning of the verb has little life independent of this phrase, one can see the phrase rendered as "extract" or even "enact revenge."

Once upon a time, when you were giving someone control, not being too strict, you were said to be giving them "free rein," as if you were letting the reins that control a horse go slack. The farther we get from horses and buggies, the more obscure this analogy becomes. It is not unusual these days to see this expression spelled "free reign," as though the person in question is the monarch of their own little kingdom. Although this could be viewed as just a spelling mistake that is becoming increasingly familiar, it actually changes the phrase, becoming what some linguists call an eggcorn. Having "free rein" suggests a dependable horse. "Free reign" suggests a more despotic situation.

In some cases, an obscure word remains in place in a phrase, but its definition changes. The phrase "begging the question" is still used, but it most often now refers to when a situation forces a question to be addressed: The question is begging to be asked. But when this phrase originated as a mistranslation of a Greek expression, "to beg the question" meant to engage in circular reasoning, assuming the answer to the question before answering it honestly — in other words to make a beggar of the question, to render the point moot. This sense of the phrase employs a figurative use of the verb form of beggar, which originally came into English in the 1400s, but has since largely fallen out of use. 

(Moot is actually another interesting case of meaning shift.  As used above, moot the adjective means "not worth considering," and it is used when something is rendered inconsequential by circumstances. The verb form of moot, however, means "to debate, talk, discuss," and there isn't the sense of a "lack of importance" as in the adjectival case.)

The prodigal in the biblical parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11 – 32) refers to a son's wasteful spending of the inheritance he obtained from his father. This meaning of prodigal as "wasteful" is preserved in the related word prodigious, which can mean anything above and beyond normal limits. Prodigal, however — and often the phrase "prodigal son" — have come to refer to the end of the tale, when the son returns to his family, with prodigal being widely accepted as "one who returns after a long time away." What's interesting about prodigal's current meaning is that it fills a gap in English — before prodigal, there wasn't a really a word in popular use. Phrases like "black sheep of the family" or "formerly estranged" don't really capture the situation, and certainly not as concisely.

So at best, phrasal change can enrich our language. And at worst, it gives us the ability to recreate from fossilized evidence the story of how our language (and culture) has changed over time. Fascinating, unless of course our interest in that kind of thing has already peaked.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 15th 2015, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Peter L. (Homestead, FL)
Interesting, but benign application examples of a larger and more destructive abuse of language used by the political left when they foist political correctness on anyone who dares to disagree with them. Take homophobic for example... homo of course is in reference to homosexuality, and phobia is an anxiety disorder that is accompanied with physical reactions (profuse sweating, trembling, hand tremors, etc.). Some people have religious beliefs that compel them to side with a world view that doesn't agree with the PC police. Racist is another; I doubt 99% of the people flinging that little gem around have ever experienced racism; but use it as a means to make people they disagree with, to shut up. See the pattern? It is dangerous, whereas the faux pas we all make are relatively victimless acts of ignorance of one's own language.
Monday June 15th 2015, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Alice K. (Nekoosa, WI)
As to moot, I have seen it written in this manner: "The question is mute." And even pronounced as "mute." As if to say, "Keep it quiet; shut up about it."
Monday June 15th 2015, 5:13 PM
Comment by: CodePoet42 (TN)
I thoroughly enjoyed this informative little article. Seeing how these commonly-used words have evolved over time is fascinating. As a voracious verbivore, I found it packed with delectable derivations and enjoyed every bite.
Tuesday June 16th 2015, 8:06 AM
Comment by: Charles C.
Yesterday I read an email from a harried colleague who was in the "throws of" something.
Tuesday June 16th 2015, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Laura C.
Thank you for this- good piece. Although I do think it's a little early to call these "fossilized".

An acquaintance texted me recently, "Whoa is me!", bemoaning her bad luck and hard day. I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt and blaming it on auto-correct!
Tuesday June 16th 2015, 10:13 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
"...'pique my interest' is increasingly rendered nowadays as 'peak my interest' because pique is a word most people don't know." Sorry, but I don't find that ignorance of a word is a logical justification for anointing an eggcorn as a legitimate usage. I find the eggcorn amusing but not accurate. I think it is a pretty slippery slope, to say that lack of knowledge is a sufficient reason to justify a new standard. Where does one draw the line? Standard constructions make it possible to communicate clearly with one another.
Wednesday June 17th 2015, 2:31 AM
Comment by: Ken M.
As to Alice K's comment, I, too, have heard the "mute point" usage many times, however, I see it's meaning differently. To me is says that the question does not speak the issue, or has no bearing on the issue. In this sense it is similar to the the "moot point" usage. At the same time, the original is, to me, preferred, if only to preserve the richness of the language and it's connections to it's origins.
Wednesday June 17th 2015, 3:39 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom)
A colleague of mine makes these little mistakes all the time. In fact he does it so frequently that we have created a dictionary in his name. One of the finest from the recent batch... "he's looking for an escape goat!" Aren't we all..?
Sunday July 5th 2015, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Eoin B. (Ireland)
Moot is interesting here in Dublin. The 9th & 10th century Hiberno-Norse (Viking!) inhabitants had the assembly in the Thing-Moot, where Thing is still the Islandic word for "assembly". The Dublin name became Thingmotte. Motte then became "small hill", and there is/was a small hill about 200 metres from the Thing-Moot, just opposite Trinity College Dublin, home of the "Book of Kells". Many historians, professional and other, now aver with some conviction that the Thing was located here
Wednesday January 13th 2016, 7:49 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
I quite agree with Ken M. but regret his confusion about the use of the apostrophe, which afflicts far too many well-educated people, inexplicably, in my opinion. As an apostrophe can only denote one thing in a word and "it" can not be plural, obviously "its" can only mean "belonging to it" and "it's" can only mean "it is".
Wednesday January 13th 2016, 7:52 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
And of course, Eoin B., "moot" came from Icelandic "mót" meaning meeting. Þingmót means meeting of the law-givers.
Wednesday January 13th 2016, 7:56 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Sorry, Visual Thesaurus doesn't allow Icelandic characters. Let us say rather "thing-mot", where the o in mot has an accent mark over it, showing that it is pronounced as in "mote". The unvoiced th-sound in Icelandic is rendered with a thorn-symbol.

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