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Have you ever questioned why we use the phrase “hang up the phone” instead of “end the call”? You probably already know the answer for that, but what about the phrase “cut and paste”, something that is done nearly every day when using a computer? The 2015 film Trumbo, which details the life of the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was blacklisted because of his allegiance to the communist party, gives a good example of the origins of this phrase. The film showed how, once Trumbo finished a script, he would re-read it and start to cut parts with scissors and paste them  to other parts of the script. In other words, he was doing a non-technological version of “cut and paste”. But what are these words and phrases that seem to be from another era?

These words that seem to be stuck in time are called fossil words. They are words that have long since become archaic, but still exist in idioms and phrases. An example of this is the word ado in “without further ado” or in William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing. This word was originally a contraction of the words at and do, and it means to do. A modern example of a contraction is can’t, which comes from the word cannot. The word ado was formed in the 14th century in the Norse-influenced areas of England, such as the northern part of the country. This word was originally a verb, but with the constant use alongside words like much, it changed to a noun. 

There are some words that might surprise you, such as the word kidnap. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word originates from “the practice in the 1600s and 1700s of stealing impoverished children from large cities in Great Britain and taking them to British colonies […] where they were sold into servitude”. It is a union of the words kid which means child, and napper which was slang for thief. Therefore, the people who stole these children became known as kidnappers. Today, this word is used for anyone that takes a person by force. We also still use the word kid to refer to a child; however, the word nap, used in the context to mean a thief, has disappeared and only exists in the word kidnap. The nap that means a short sleep throughout the day has another etymology and does not relate in any way to the previously discussed definition. 

But English is not the only language that has this feature—fossil words also appear in the Spanish language. An example of this is the preposition so in the expression so pena de. This expression translates to the phrase under penalty of or at the risk of. The word so, in Spanish, comes from the prefix sub, which translates to under. This prefix is still used in many words in this language such as subterráneo (underground) and subconsciente (subconscious). But, so would only live on in phrases like so pena de, which is mostly used in legal contexts. There are some other phrases that are less common and are in disuse, but still have so as a preposition, such as so capa de, which translates to under the appearance of  and so color de which means under the pretext of.

So long as people continue to communicate with each other, these words will live on. They are a way for us to understand a past that sometimes seems strange and mysterious. Fossil words serve as a link to our ancestors, to better comprehend the lives that they led and the type of language that they spoke. Many of the new uses of these words have come because of technological innovations, like the case of “cut and paste”. As language keeps on evolving and changing, words that are common today might live long enough to become fossil words. This is just another example of the ever changing thing that is the wonder of language. You should ask yourself if some of the words or expressions that you use in your daily life are fossil words. 


English major with an International Relations minor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. Also third place winner of the International YRE Competition 2020.
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