English has changed a lot in the last several hundred years, and there are many words once used that we would no longer recognize today.
For whatever reason, we started pronouncing them differently, or stopped using them entirely, and they became obsolete. 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.
- DESERTS – The “desert” from the phrase “just deserts” is not the dry and sandy kind, nor the sweet post-dinner kind. It comes from an Old French word for “deserve,” and it was used in English from the 13th century to mean “that which is deserved.”
- EKE – If we see “eke” at all these days, it’s when we “eke out” a living, but it comes from an old verb meaning to add, supplement, or grow. It’s the same word that gave us “eke-name” for “additional name,” which later, through misanalysis of “an eke-name” became “nickname.”
- HUE – The “hue” of “hue and cry,” the expression for the noisy clamor of a crowd, is not the same “hue” as the term we use for color. The color one comes from the Old English word híew, for “appearance.” This hue comes from the Old French hu or heu, which was basically an onomatopoeia, like “hoot.”
- KITH – The “kith” part of “kith and kin” came from an Old English word referring to knowledge or acquaintance. It also stood for native land or country, the place you were most familiar with.
- LURCH – When you leave someone “in the lurch,” you leave them in a jam, in a difficult position. But while getting left in the lurch may leave you staggering around and feeling off-balance, the “lurch” in this expression has a different origin than the staggery one. The balance-related lurch comes from nautical vocabulary, while the lurch you get left in comes from an old French backgammon-style game called lourche. Lurch became a general term for the situation of beating your opponent by a huge score.
- SHRIFT – “Shrift” was a word for a confession, something it seems we might want to keep short, or a penance imposed by a priest, something we would definitely want to keep short. But the phrase “short shrift” came from the practice of allowing a little time for the condemned to make a confession before being executed. So in that context, shorter was not better.