WHEN stone tools were recently found in China, they were interpreted as proof that the exodus of humans from Africa took place hundreds of thousands of years earlier than was previously thought. The discovery of some hunks of chipped rock illuminated events almost 2m years ago—an intellectual coup for the palaeoanthropologists and geologists who were involved.
Not all fossils are made of stone. For example, at The Economist’s headquarters in London there is a sign reading “By the lifts”; under it are pinned assorted memos and news reports. There are no lifts nearby. Only those of us familiar with the newspaper’s history understand the allusion: such clippings were displayed near the lifts in our previous HQ. Similarly, departments of the paper continue to call themselves “12th floor” and “13th floor”, even though they now share the same (sixth) floor in the new building.
Language is full of relics like this, many of them with fascinating stories to tell. That “13th floor” is what is sometimes called an “anachronym”: a name that no longer makes sense, because the underlying facts have changed while the language has not. Anachronyms abound. People still “dial” phone numbers, though phones no longer have a dial. They are told to “tune in” to a television show, though TVs no longer have tuners. E-mail’s “CC:” feature stands for “carbon copy”, though the smeary blue paper that once made instant copies possible is hardly to be found on Gmail.
Clichés and ossified phrases are another way to get a glimpse into a lost past. Take “stuck in a rut”. Most people have an idea that a rut is a kind of physical groove, but what kind? The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully explains that the origin is the groove cut by sharp cartwheels in a soft road. Today, in a world full of soft wheels and hard roads, only metaphorical ruts remain, a reminder of an earlier time. It is a kind of phrasal anachronym.
An anachronym is different from a “retronym”. These are words that have had to change because the world has changed around them. A guitar was once a stringed instrument whose hollow wooden body produced its sound. Then someone added magnets and electricity, and the popularity of the electric guitar necessitated a new word for the old thing: the “acoustic” guitar. If you are reading these words on paper, you might consider yourself a fan of “print newspapers”, a term that would once have been a tautology but has become, in the era of digital publishing, a necessary retronym.
Much of the gunk and irregularity of language begins to make sense when approached as a kind of fossil hunt. Why does the commonest verb in English—“to be”—have the wildly irregular conjugation am-is-are-was-were? Nobody would design such a verb, and indeed no one did. It is in fact a mash-up of three proto-Germanic roots, one of which produced am-is-are, one of which yielded was-were (replacing the past tense of the am-is group, in a process called suppletion), and one resulting in be itself. It is the duck-billed platypus of verbs, an odd hybrid of features. But just as evolutionary biology explains the platypus, historical linguistics shows how the three verbs piled up on each other.
Historical wear and tear often deforms phrases so they seem to be nonsensical. Take the expression—widely used in the discussion of Brexit—“to have your cake and eat it”. This is no contradiction at all; one can have and subsequently consume a cake. The point is clearer in the original form: “to eat your cake and have it.” In this order, the combination is not possible, and so the cliché makes more sense.
Etymology and the history of language are intriguing in their own right. Who could not love the fact that a “daisy” gets its name from being the “day’s eye”, because the flower opens in sunlight? But assorted unconnected facts are just that—fleetingly arresting cocktail-party diversions. However, when the processes of change fall into regular categories and patterns—retronyms or suppletive verbs like to be—they illuminate something bigger. Beneath the illogic of irregular verbs and baffling proverbs is, if not order, at least reason. As a bonus, there are lessons aplenty about the history of human culture more generally.
Kant said that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” But crooked things can be as lovely as regular ones—and they are often much more interesting.