“Sleight of hand and twist of fate . . .” — from the song “With or Without You” by U2

I recently discovered a fossil, and the best part about it is that it was right in front of me, no digging required. Even better, it jumped right out at me while I was sitting at the kitchen table reading the sports pages, where retired pioneering race car driver Janet Guthrie compared her former sport to equestrian events, observing, “(H)orseback riding has since time immemorial been the one way a young girl had socially acceptable access to power.”

And there it was, “time immemorial,” just waiting to be pulled off the page and used in the introduction of this column about fossil words, which are basically words that are still in use only because they happen to be necessary to the particular phrase in which they appear. Think about it, when was the last time you heard anyone use the word “immemorial” when they weren’t referring to time?

“Ado,” which refers to a fuss or a state of agitation, is generally used only when we’re talking about doing something “without further ado,” or possibly discussing William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

And speaking of Shakespeare, he also gave us the seldom-used words “loggerheads” and “petard” when he wrote about being “at logger-heads” (involved in a feud) with someone in “Love’s Labours Lost,” and being hoisted by one’s own petard (hurt, ironically, by one’s own efforts) in reference to a bomb maker in “Hamlet.”

Thanks to the French I get to take “umbrage” (or offense) — which comes from the Old French “ombrage” — with being left in the “lurch” (leaving someone in dire straits), which comes from a French dice game called “lourche.”


But enough about me. Let’s give historical perspective to some rarely used words and put them into action describing an earlier, fictional time when men roamed in hordes and spoke somewhat strangely. Let’s hark back (remember the past) to the days of yore (long ago), when an angry warrior became the leader of a horde by dint (force) of his moral turpitude (depravity).

As this brief story goes, this particular horde was champing at the bit (anxious). Their hue (hooting) and cry turned to silence as they heeded their leader’s beck and call (summons), and they stood with bated breath (nervous anticipation) as they waited to hear what they’d soon be doing at his behest (command). “The villagers had better batten down the hatches (prepare for difficult times),” he told his troops. “We’re about to wreak havoc (cause a large amount of damage) on their town and leave them wondering what God hath wrought” (made happen).

But the enemy suspected an attack, and the idea of a preemptive strike had already been bandied about (discussed in a casual way) and was in the offing (likely to happen). Beyond the ken (knowledge) of the horde, their enemy planned to wend (proceed) their way on horseback to the horde’s island fortress during the neap tide (the tide with the least difference between high and low water) and ride roughshod (with nails protruding from their horseshoes) over them in the middle of the night, causing them to scatter helter skelter (in confusion).

Nuf sed. (The end.)

Note: No warring tribesmen were harmed in the writing of this column; they’re just figments (things believed to be true) of my imagination.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”

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