A fossil word is an obsolete word that has been “fossilized,” or preserved, within an idiom. These words are rarely, if ever, used outside of the idiomatic expressions in which they are embedded. In fact, an English speaker using an idiom containing a fossil word might not even be aware of what the fossil word means on its own. In this lesson, we’re going to look at four fossil words and the idiomatic expressions that keep them from disappearing from modern English.
Ado means “fuss,” especially over something that is unimportant. In modern English, ado has two common uses:
Without further ado…
This idiomatic expression means “with no further delays or interruptions.”
Much ado about nothing
This famous (and somewhat redundant) idiom exists in modern English thanks largely to it being the title of a Shakespeare play. “Much ado about nothing” emphasizes just how unimportant the issue being fussed over actually is.
While sharing its spelling with the modern “desert,” the archaic desert actually means “something that is deserved.” When someone gets his or her just deserts, we mean that a person receives whatever he or she has coming to him or her. Note that desert is pronounced like the verb “desert” (to abandon) and not the noun “desert” (an arid, dry place).
This fossil word means “away, back, or from.” Fro is used exclusively in the idiom to and fro, which is the same as saying “back and forth”:
The storm tossed the ship to and fro.
The storm tossed the ship back and forth.
Sleight (pronounced like “slight”) means “cunning or trickery.” It is used in the idiom sleight of hand, which refers to manual dexterity, typically in the context of performing tricks. It can also be used to suggest skillful deception. In the case of a magic performance, both meanings are applicable:
The magician performed an incredible feat of sleight of hand. Neither the volunteer nor the audience saw the magician remove the volunteer’s necklace.