I tend to groan when I see links with titles like “X Words That…” because they’re usually unfunny invented words, allegedly untranslatable words, or some other category that’s been done to death, but I perked up when I saw that 12 Old Words that Survived by Getting Fossilized in Idioms was by Arika Okrent, one of my favorite popular writers on language (see this LH review), and even more when I realized that it was actually useful: “There are some old words, however, that are nearly obsolete, but we still recognize because they were lucky enough to get stuck in set phrases that have lasted across the centuries. Here are 12 lucky words that survived by getting fossilized in idioms.” Here’s the first:

You rarely see a “wend” without a “way.” You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school. However, there was a time when English speakers would wend to all kinds of places. “Wend” was just another word for “go” in Old English. The past tense of “wend” was “went” and the past tense of “go” was “gaed.” People used both until the 15th century, when “go” became the preferred verb, except in the past tense where “went” hung on, leaving us with an outrageously irregular verb.

Succinct and satisfying; read ’em all!

Another entrant in the word-list category: 18 obsolete words, which never should have gone out of style, by Carmel Lobello. From snoutfair (“A person with a handsome countenance”) to zafty (“A person very easily imposed upon”), they might give you a chuckle—and groak (“To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them”) was featured right here at LH a few years ago. (Thanks, Sven!)


  1. Here’s one for John Cowan:
    If dint was a blow of a sword or other weapon (like a mace) did it become the dint (or dent) of indentation, as in armour?
    Also (and this is even wilder), in this foggy old mind it looks like the past tense of din as in ‘din something into someone’, and is it really too far-fetched to relate it to the din of battle?
    Only the disciplined mind of a JC could thrash this maunder into shape.

  2. Well, somewhat. Dint, dent, dunt is a native word, and was originally the blow, and then the result of the blow; but indentation is from Latin, and is < dent- ‘tooth’. The English cognate of this, I believe, is tine, which lost its /d/ except in Tolkien’s name for an island consisting of a single tall, steep, and inaccessible rock standing out of a river, the Tindrock.

  3. By some strange alignment of the stars, I was thinking of ‘dint’ last night. For some reason I learnt the pronunciation of this word as ‘dint’, but the standard spelling I learnt was ‘dent’. This mismatch has led, in Australian English at least, to the spelling pronunciation ‘dent’. (I can’t prove that this is a spelling pronunciation but I’m pretty sure it is.) For some reason, the spelling ‘dint’ doesn’t seem to have caught on.
    On the other hand, the colloquial term ‘ding’ (which may or may not be etymologically related) survives unscathed.
    And yes, etymologically ‘dint’ does relate to the ‘dint’ or great blow of a weapon.

  4. Arika? I’m currently reading her book In the land Of Invented Languages and I would have sworn in court that her name was Akira. Shows how much attention I pay to book covers, I suppose.
    She’s really a terrific writer on language.

  5. I was expecting to see “hale” there somewhere. Also “vim”.
    How about…
    “strait” from “strait and narrow” and “straitjacket”?
    “main” from “might and main”?
    Then there’s “(-)tide” in the saying “time and tide” and “yule-“.
    “sound” from “sound mind” – yes there are a few other phrases that use the “healthy” meaning of “sound”, but not many.
    “poke” from “pig in a poke”.
    What about a similar list of dialect or archaic pronunciations fossilized by idioms, like “rarin’ to go”?

  6. Another “tide” one – “tide you over”

  7. Nitpicking, too.
    In Russian, “steamed turnip” (in “проще пареной репы” ~ easier than a pie) hasn’t been on an actual table for centuries (ever since the sweet big turnips have gone extinct to a fungal disease). BTW there is a turnip etymology mystery. Its Latin species name, Brassica *rapa*, is cognate with Russian репа “repa”, Greek ῥάφυς, and German rübe – but this root isn’t known beyond South and Centr/East Europe, and its “root origin” may be anybody’s guess. In Western Europe, from Portugal to Norway, “rapa” becomes “napa” – but so is napa cabbage, the leavy variety of C. rapa which goes into kimchi.

  8. Thanks, John. Yes, I felt the tooth in indentation.
    So the two meanings of din don’t relate to dint?

  9. You din something into someone by carrying on about it. First it’s to assail something with a din, then to utter something continuously so as to wear them out, then just to repeat ad nauseam: so the OED. It’s probably imitative in origin, but so is dint, probably.

  10. For a further exploration of lost words, I recommend Mark Forsyth’s ‘The Horologicon’

  11. re: din something into someone – so do we think this stuff about Dunkirk and John Dun is just folk etymology, or what?

  12. In political philosophy, they talk about distribution of resources in human society “by desert”, don’t they?

  13. dearieme says:

    WKPD: “Resistentialism is a jocular theory to describe “seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects.” … The term was coined by humo[u]rist Paul Jennings in a piece titled “Report on Resistentialism”, published in The Spectator in 1948″.
    P.S. I too think that “desert” has hung on tenuously beyond just “just deserts”.
    P.P.S. The “poke” of “pig in a poke” survives as a commonplace word in in Scotland.
    P.P.P.S. Is the “ding” in “Facts are chiels that winna ding” related to “dint”?

  14. semiotek says:

    Wending our way back to the original topic, I always wondered about the past tense of to go until I started to learn Danish – it still has both verbs (_at gå_ and _at vende) in regular use, the latter commonly with _tilbage_, as in _at vende tilbage_ to come back or return.

  15. Isn’t a ding (on a car body – I’m not really sure whether they say this in the USA) onomatopoeia?

  16. Ding is a small dent on a car body or other similar surface in the US, definitely. If you also have a short temper and birds defecating on your hood, it’s quite easy to get a ding/dang/dung scenario

  17. According to my Haugen dictionary, vende in Norwegian means ‘turn (a collar, one’s head, a page, etc.)’ and is used in phrases like vende om ‘turn around, turn back’ and, yes, vende tilbake ‘return.’ You can also say huset vender (ut) mot havet ‘the house faces the sea.’

  18. marie-lucie says:

    You rarely see a “wend” without a “way.” You can wend your way through a crowd or down a hill, but no one wends to bed or to school.
    The usual “wend one’s way” is a transitive verb, and the direct object “one’s way” does not refer to a location. In the hypothesized “*wend to bed/to school” the verb would be used as an intransitive, followed by a prepositional phrase indicating a goal, like go. Semantically, you could say “wend one’s way to school”, with both the direct object and the PP, but “*wend one’s way to bed” would seem bizarre. The Scandinavian cognates vende all seem to mean, or be associated with, ‘turn, return’. The Old English verb must have had the same meaning, hence “wend one’s way home” = ‘return home’ (“home” counting as a PP in this context). The meaning and syntactic use of wend therefore was more limited than that of go and that is probably why it fell out of use (meanwhile, go is sometimes used as a transitive, as in I’ll go my own way which is metaphorical).
    Why the past tense form went not only survived but took over from *goed (or a similar form based on go) is the mystery: perhaps at some point it was homophonous with good or even god? but homophones can stay in a language for a long time, especially if they belong to different parts of speech and are used in completely different contexts.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. correction: I should have reread the quotation: the past tense of go was gaed not *goed. I withdraw the suggestion in my second paragraph.

  20. on “wend” –
    1) I was prepared for wend/wende/went by a high school English teacher who made us memorize the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Prelude. I’m not a fan of compulsory memorization, and I’m pretty sure that the other 19 kids in the class did not benefit in the slightest from this waste of brain cells, and have probably forgotten even the memory of memorizing this, but for me these 18 lines are a cornerstone of brain activity, and this was probably the moment I became an (armchair) linguist. If I were teaching that class myself today, would I insist that students memorize those 18 lines? Honestly, probably not. But that forced experience changed my life. Hm.
    2) in my understanding in German, Wenden (as opposed to just plain Gehen) is still used as a verb that means more like “turn to” or “seek out” something. So you can “go” anywhere, but to “wend” is a more purposeful and goal-directed motion. Same as in the English remnants, I think?

  21. How was/is “gaed” pronounced?

  22. Wend is related to the verbs wander and wind (not the wind of breezes and horns, but the other one that sounds like wined). And (or but) I always have to remind myself that wending your way doesn’t imply that your way is a winding way.

  23. semiotek says:

    Wind and wind still pronounced the same by Lough Neagh eel fishermen…

  24. Don’t forget die Wenden, who I always mix up with the wizzygoths.

  25. Adelfons says:

    I’ve always wondered why you can bark your shin but nothing else, it seems, not even your dog.

  26. used in phrases like vende om ‘turn around, turn back’ and, yes, vende tilbake ‘return.’ You can also say huset vender (ut) mot havet ‘the house faces the sea.’
    Yup. Å vende is a totally everyday, run-of-the-mill werb.

  27. @Adelfons – good one. Bark your shin…and is that unique experience slightly more likely when wearing bathing trunks?

  28. Dmitry,
    “but this root isn’t known beyond South and Centr/East Europe, ”
    Nope. It is the “rape” of “rapeseed”. That’s pretty obviously a borrowing form Latin, but still it does appear in NW Europe.

  29. dearieme says:

    How was/is “gaed” pronounced?
    “gaid”, whenIwasbutalad. The vowel is a bit longer (not in some linguistic sense, I mean just that the noise lasts longer than it would in “aid”.)

  30. Well, the English cognate of dens, dentis is really ‘tooth’. Despite the difference in ablaut grades (English with an o-grade, Latin with a zero-grade – both probably part of the original paradigm, and the zero-grade is found elsewhere in Germanic), they both continue the same IE root noun meaning ‘tooth’.
    tine (Old English tind) is probably from the same root, but is a full-grade thematic derivative that came to mean something more like ‘jag, tip’ (to give Kroonen’s gloss for PGmc) – a tooth only in an extended sense.

  31. Not a root noun – not sure why I wrote that. I meant consonant stem.

  32. Tine: tann, tenner is tooth & teeth in Norwegian. I suppose it’s not unlike Zahn & Zähne. ‘Tine’ is also the main flogger of dairy products in southern Norway.

  33. Gaed cannot possibly have been the original English preterite of go. For one thing, it is obviously Scots, with the FACE rather than the GOAT vowel, the usual Scots and English outcomes respectively of OE á in gán. Indeed, the DSL first records forms of gaed around the 16th century, showing that it is a modern regularization within Scots.
    Second, go is and always has been a strong verb, as the strong participle gone and the German cognate gehen : ging : gegangen plainly show. As of our earliest records of English, there is no preterite cognate to ging in use. In Old English, the otherwise unknown form éode (I omit standard OE verb endings) serves as a suppletive predicate; it looks suspiciously like the weak verb ending, but it’s not clear to me if it is or not. In addition, the predicate géong of the synonymous verb gangan, which may or may not be related to gán (it’s the source of the German participle), does double duty as the preterite of gán. In Middle English, these survive as yede and gang, but are progressively replaced by went.

  34. German wenden is almost always to turn around or turn back. It’s what your satnav tells you to do if you haven’t been paying attention to its instructions. Bitte wenden.
    The noun is die Wende – a turn-around (also tacking, the sailing manouver) and in the context of German recent history used twice. First was the time of the geistig-moralische Wende which we got when Helmut Kohl became chancellor and probably much better-known it is also used to refer to the peaceful revolution in the GDR. Wikipedia has an English-language article about the term and the event.
    Then there is the Wendehals, the German name of the Eurasian Wryneck, a bird that can twist its neck almost 180 degrees. It was Bird of the Year in 1988 and quickly became popular to describe the people who had been loyal to the GDR but quickly adjusted to the new system. The word had before that already been used to describe opportunists.

  35. I’ve occasionally wondered what equivalents other languages had to the Vicar of Bray. (Not that most English-speakers are familiar with the phrase and song any more, alas.)

  36. The etymology of ‘go’ is a mess, but the one thing it isn’t and never has been is a strong verb. This ‘short’ form, as opposed to the probably quite distinct ‘long’ *gangan, seems to have been limited to the present where it occurred (it’s not found in Gothic, for instance). Preterites were supplied either from ‘long’ *gangan (which is a strong verb outside of Gothic – in Gothic this verb is also suppletive, except for one weak form which might just be a nonce creation), as in German, or else by éode in English.
    This last verb pretty definitely has a weak inflection in OE, though its history is pretty obscure. It might well be related to Gothic iddja, plural iddjedun, which is the usual suppletive past for gaggan! The OE and Gothic forms don’t quite match though. The Gothic verb is also ‘half weak’ – the plural has clear weak verb endings, but the singular sort of has the weak endings but without the dental stem marker.

  37. To be clearer: gone doesn’t reflect a genuine preterite system of go, but is probably simply on the analogy of done. German gegangen is suppletive, along with the preterite in general, from the ‘long’ verb, which is at best speculatively and distantly related to short gān.

  38. And one more follow up (sorry), the ‘gone’/’done’ thing isn’t on the basis of the modern forms, though these appear very similar. OE had gegán and gedón, which are parallel to the stems of the two verbs. The same parallelism, probably reflecting historical assimilation, is visible in the paradigms of these verbs in general.

  39. My mental translation for Wendehals is turncoat. With most of the population ‘turning their coats’ after WWII I don’t think we’ve got a single person whose name is synonymous with being an opportunist.

  40. Quo vadis, Wendigo Way?

  41. Bray is very close to Slough (about 3 miles), and pretty close to Stoke Poges, of Elegy in a Country Churchyard fame.

  42. Jeffry House says:

    Certain mountains in Norway are called Oeksfjordtindane.
    The last part, “tindane” means jagged peaks, with the singular being “”Tind”.

  43. Jeffry House says:

    As in: “Glitretind”- Shining Peak.

  44. Don’t Americans say ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’? Or do they say ‘spilled’?

  45. dearieme says:

    Who uses “smelt” as a past participle?

  46. I do sometimes. “It smelt funny”.

  47. J.W. Brewer says:

    In my experience “smelt” is not typical in AmEng except (for the sake of rhyme) in a particular fixed phrase used in schoolbus/playground/etc. badinage among children and (let me check …) faithfully reproduced in the wikipedia article on “Flatulence humor.” Truly the internet is a wondrous thing.

  48. “It smelt funny”
    That’s a past tense.

  49. What do you mean by that, Bathrobe? Is this a linguistic trap? You use the pp to form the past tense, don’t you?

  50. dearieme says:

    Having burnt down his workshop because he’d burnt up some refuse while attempting to smelt down some metal, Crown learnt his lesson and went to town. Having smelt smelt at the fishmonger’s, he wrote a cheque (spelt “check”), picked up a punnet, and spilt it all because he’d tript, having dreamt of dinner as he walkt. Or maybe it was lunch. Or supper. Or even high tea. “Oh woe” he cried “Jesus wepped”.

  51. dearieme says:

    And the dint on his leg produced a nasty welt, din’t it?

  52. Doris: “Spilled milk”, definitely.

  53. I’d say “I smelled (sniffed) the sole of his shoe. It smelt funny.” – Don’t ask me why.

  54. I believe this is a complete list of weak verb roots with irregular -t endings (and a few with irregular -d) that are used in all varieties of English:
    Shortened vowel plus -t: creep/crept, keep/kept, sleep/slept, weep/wept, deal/dealt, feel/felt, kneel/knelt, mean/meant, bend/bent, lend/lent, rend/rent, send/sent, spend/spent
    Secondary zero inflection because the root ends in /t/ or /d/ already: bet/bet, bid/bid, burst/burst, cost/cost, cut/cut, fit/fit, hit/hit, hurt/hurt, let/let, put/put, quit/quit, rid/rid, set/set, shed/shed, shut/shut, slit/slit, split/split, spread/spread, thrust/thrust, wed/wed, wet/wet
    Both: bleed/bled, breed/bred, feed/fed, read/read, speed/sped, lead/led, meet/met, slide/slid, light/lit, shoot/shot
    Devoicing of root before -t: leave/left, lose/lost, build/built
    The list is from CGEL. Corrections welcome. In baseball contexts, slided is common.

  55. mollymooly says:

    As regards -t/-ed variation in past forms: did I read or just surmise that -t is more likely for a participial used attributively than one used predicatively, and less likely still for a preterite?
    This is orthogonal to the fact that -t is more likely in BrE than AmE. I think it is also more likely in speech than writing. In particular “earn” is never spelt “earnt”, though sometimes so pronounced (without going into decidedly dialectal forms like tell>tolt).
    I’m fond of “blent”. “Where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing.”

  56. marie-lucie says:

    JC, Thank you for the lists. I think you could add gild/gilt (recently mentioned here) to your last set.

  57. Marie-Lucie: But gilt is primarily an adjective, secondarily a participle, and only tertiarily (?) a preterite. (That is indeed the order of likely irregularities, Mollymooly, because it is the order from least pressure towards regularity to most pressure.) Contrast the complete unacceptability in any kind of Standard English of *creeped, *heared, *letted, *shooted.
    Note that some members of the list above do have regularized adjective counterparts like fitted ‘shaped to fit’, or regular verb analogues that are denominalized deverbals, like cost/costed ‘estimate(d) or set the cost of’.

  58. Except to be (totally) creeped out, of course.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I see your point.
    AJP: I think that creeped (out) comes from the transitive verb to creep (somebody) out which (I think) comes from the noun a creep, not the intransitive verb to creep (eg on the ground, or out of hiding).

  60. ‘Fit’ is always ‘fitted’. I suspect ‘fit’ is confined to North America.

  61. But even in NA we speak of fitted sheets.
    Also Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, dint he?

  62. Just deleted 550 spam comments and am closing this down. It’s soul-crushing work deleting so many comments one by one, and it makes me think dark thoughts. Thank goodness my stepson/administrator and I are finally taking steps to change platforms. Soon there will be a shiny new WordPress LH!

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