Almost-lost words

From Walt Slocombe in yesterday’s mail:

I saw (on another blog that I cannot now find again) a piece on word combinations that include a word originally in general usage that has come to be barely used except in a single combination.

(Walt recalled wend one’s way and cast aspersions.)

I suspect that there are several blogs of this sort, but one I found right away (using the two examples Walt remembered) was this one on “verbal vestigia” — about “words in English that seem to exist only in a single phrase”.

Walt then offered an example of his own:

One from modern politics, is the term “tantamount to election,” — “tantamount” in current  usage is almost never encountered except in the context of political systems so dominated by one party (as in the old solid south, today’s heavily gerrymandered legislative districts, and the District of Columbia) that winning the dominant party’s primary is “tantamount to election.”

But his impression that tantamount is almost entirely restricted to tantamount to election is well off the mark.

Some cases from the verbal-vestigia blog are indeed survivals of earlier usages that were much more general. The kith of kith and kin is a venerable word (going back to Old English) meaning ‘knowledge’, then ‘etiquette’ and ‘one’s native land’, then ‘one’s friends or fellow-countrymen’, eventually restricted to kith and kin ‘friends and relatives’ (attested from 1377 on).

But other items on the list are relatively recent developments: druthers and get-go (or getgo),for instance. From OED2:

druther v.: U.S. dialectal alteration of (I, you, etc.) would rather. [first cite 1876, in Tom Sawyer]

druther n. (also ‘druthers, ˈruther, ˈruthers) a choice, preference. [first cite in 1895 Dialect Notes: have my druthers]

With a wonderful quote from Walker Percy:

1941   W. A. Percy Lanterns on Levee xxii. 292   ‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern.

The only form that is now in general use is in the informal idiom have one’s druthers.

Get-go is even more recent. From OED3 (June 2005):

Etymology:  < get v. + go v., perhaps after to get going
U.S. colloq. (orig. in African-American usage). The outset; the very beginning. Chiefly in from the get-go. [first cite 1962]

Now, back to tantamount. From NOAD2:

adjective [predic.] (tantamount to)   equivalent in seriousness to; virtually the same as: the resignations were tantamount to an admission of guilt.  ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from the earlier verb tantamount ‘amount to as much,’ from Italian tanto montare [probably via French].

Other dictionaries (Merriam-Webster Online, Collins English Dictionary) give the tantamount to an admission of guilt example. Other examples from dictionaries:

They see any criticism of the President as tantamount to treason.

a request tantamount to a demand

an insult tantamount to a slap in the face

Tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco lobby.

To question these, much less abandon them, seems tantamount to renouncing parents, society, even truth itself.

Tantamount to surrender.

What would have misled Walt Slocombe about the status of tantamount (to)? Here’s the beginning of Walt’s Wikipedia page:

Walter Becker Slocombe (born September 23, 1941) is a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (1994–2001) and was the Senior Advisor for Security and Defence to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003).

A lawyer and career federal official, Slocombe joined the staff of the National Security Council in 1969. Prior to that, he worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas… He currently practices law with the Washington firm of Caplin & Drysdale.

(Walt and I were friends at Princeton, many years ago.) Walt’s long association with the law and public service would focus his attention on tantamount in political contexts, but in fact the word is used quite widely. It’s not vestigial at all.

3 Responses to “Almost-lost words”

  1. John Baker Says:

    while aspersions most frequently are cast, the word is also found with some regularity in an uncast state. Aspersions may, for example, be faced, implied, or overcome, or they may exist on their own, as in the sentence, “In the 19th century any reference to female sexuality was considered a vile aspersion.” In this way aspersions exist in an intermediate state between words like kith, which is found only in a single fixed phrase, and widely usable words like tantamount.

  2. Stan Says:

    I wrote about something similar recently, describing them as fossil words and phrases (short shrift, bated breath), and linking to an article by Arika Okrent which may have been the one your correspondent had forgotten.

  3. Walt Slocombe Says:

    Always happy to be enlightened, and any statement (at least about language) by Arnold is tantamount to revealed truth. And Arnold is certainly correct that the explanation for my error is a too-limited range of interests. (I am less convinced about “aspersions” )
    In any event, the post I saw originally is at
    http://mentalfloss.com/article/51150/12-old-words-survived-getting-fossilized-idioms

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