Over centuries, the English language has grown and evolved, and in this process of development, is has incorporated new words, while it has also left behind a few. There are many words that users of English do not recognize anymore, as their usage has completely stopped. The list of such obsolete words would have been longer, had it not been for some idioms where some old, endangered words have survived. Many have drifted from their original meanings, too. Let us look at some of these words.
Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘shrift’ as an archaic word meaning a confession, especially to a priest, or an absolution by a priest. But, people hardly use this word. What they use it for is to complete the expression, short shrift. Though the archaic meaning of it is little time between condemnation and execution or punishment, it has now come to mean a rapid and unsympathetic dismissal or a curt treatment, having undergone a huge change in meaning and usage.
The archaic meaning of the word is shade or shadow, especially as cast by trees. It is derived from the Latin word umbra meaning shadow. A sense in which the word was earlier used was ‘shadowy outline, which gave rise to ‘ground for suspicion’. This notion has probably been altered enough to the current idea, i.e. offense or annoyance. However, the word is not really used without some form of the verb, ‘take’, hence turning its usage into one within an expression.
Leaving someone in the lurch would mean to leave someone without assistance abruptly in the middle of trouble. The word ‘lurch’ also means unsteady, uncontrolled movement. While the latter meaning is derived from the late 17th century usage as a noun that denoted the sudden leaning of a ship, the other meaning may have come from the 6th century French word, lourche, a game resembling backgammon, where the phrase demeurer lurche meaning ‘be discomfited’ was used.
The only way we use ‘fro’ these days is in the expression, ‘to and fro’ which denotes constant back and forth movements. It is actually derived from the way in which the pronoun, ‘from’ was pronounced by in the Northern English or Scottish style. But, this remnant of the archaically pronounced word was once also used in other expressions, such as, ‘to do fro’ meaning ‘to remove’, or ‘of or fro’ meaning ‘for or against’, but, none of them have lasted.
The word is used as a part of the expression, ‘kith and kin’, and is not used individually. It has been derived from an Old English word which was a reference to knowledge or acquaintance. It also meant ‘one’s native land’ and ‘friends and neighbours’. In fact, ‘kith and kin’ as a phrase originally denoted the country and relatives of a person. However, it took a wider sense of the one’s relations, which has survived till today.
The commonly used expression with this word now is ‘to run/ride roughshod’ over someone or something. The expression means tyrannizing or treating harshly. Archaically, it described the 17th century version of a snow tire. For a better grip on the slippery roads, the rough-shod horses used to have their shoes attached with protruding nail heads. Perhaps the current meaning has been derived keeping in mind how someone would feel on being trodden on by such a horse.
The word means a dent or hollow in a surface, and is more commonly used in the form of the expression, ‘by dint of’ something, meaning ‘because of’ something or ‘due to the efforts of’ something. However, the archaic usage of the word was too refer to a blow or stroke, especially one made using a weapon during fighting. Though ‘dint’ has lost its original meaning and is hardly used as an individual word, its meaning still bears the essence of its old usage.
When we say ‘just deserts’, the idiom has nothing to do with the dry stretches of sandy land, or the alienation. The 13th century usage of the word was to mean ‘that which is deserved’ and is comes from the Old French word meaning ‘deserve’. The modern usage of the word to mean ‘abandon’ is possibly derived from the word desertus, a Latin word which means, ‘left waste’. It is not to be confused with ‘just desserts’ which is non-standard as is often used as a pun for bakery names, etc.
The word ‘sleight’ is often wrongly written as ‘slight’. Used in the phrase, ‘sleight of hand,’ the word ‘sleight’ originates from a Middle English word referring to dexterity and cunning used for the purpose of deceiving. But, the phrase refers to light and nimble fingers, which bears the essence of slightness. The alternative expression, ‘legerdemain’, is derived from the French ‘léger de main’, meaning ‘light of hand’.
‘Hue and cry’ is an expression which stands for loud clamour or outcry of the crowd. Individually, the word ‘hue’ means ‘colour’, as well as character. The meaning ‘colour’ is derived from an Old English word, híew or hēow, which referred to ‘appearance’. This originally German word is now obsolete except in Scots. The word could also be related to the Swedish word hy referring to skin or complexion, and the sense of shade or colour came into being from the mid-19th century.
Thus, many words have changed in meanings completely, while other have assumed a related meaning. However, in case of idioms and phrases, some English words assume meanings or usages that are quite detached from their original or archaic meanings. How the derivations or aberrations have taken place is often a matter of debate.