And other language fossils such as “How dare you,” “Perish the thought,” and pronouncing the “-ed” at the end of “wicked.”
How Dare English Change!
Sometimes entire rules of syntax get left behind. For example, take the sentence “How dare you!” The verb “dare” comes before the subject “you.” In present-day English, only helping verbs do that; for example, “How are you doing?” and “How did this happen?” The reason "dare" does this is that it used to be a helping verb, too.* But while helping verbs such as "may," "can," and "must" continued on into present-day English, "dare" mostly fell out of use. Because “How dare you” is a fixed expression of indignation and outrage, it hung on, but it’s still a bit rare. As a result, when some speakers these days hear “How dare you,” they try to make it fit the modern grammar rules that they know, and reinterpret “you” as the object of “dare” instead of the subject. They can do this because “you” can be used as either the subject or the object of a verb. Then, when these speakers try to use “How dare” with a third party, they’ll use object pronouns and say “How dare him,” “How dare her,” and “How dare them!” The expression still doesn’t quite match modern English grammar, because now “dare” is left without a subject, but that’s what happens when expressions get left behind. Later speakers try to make them behave, with varying degrees of success.
Perish the Thought
Another piece of the English verb system that’s been mostly left behind is the subjunctive mood. You can find it in fossilized subjunctive expressions, such as “Perish the thought!”
But once again, an expression that missed the system update years ago is subject to tinkering by later speakers. In this case , the verb “perish” means to die, and doesn’t take a direct object. But because “the thought” comes after it, and because it’s “perish” and not “perishes,” it’s easy to interpret the expression as a command, with “perish” meaning to kill, and “the thought” as its direct object. Speakers might go for years with this reinterpretation never revealing itself, but when they say something like, “I perished the thought,” it comes to light.
Why Fossils Are Fun
Fossil language like “dice,” “wicked,” “buck-naked,” “how dare you,” and “perish the thought” make a language more interesting. Furthermore, linguists can often use these left-behind fragments of older language to gain insight into earlier stages of a language’s development. Things that are archaic and strange in one language can sometimes even show how that language is connected with others, where similar words or constructions are still in common use. So when you come across a pronunciation, word, or expression that just doesn’t seem to make sense, don’t get frustrated. You might have stumbled across a fossil, with its own, fascinating story to tell.
Jonathon Owen’s blog, Arrant Pedantry.
*The original version of this article referred to "dare" as being in the subjunctive mood.