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Q From Warren McLean, Australia: The Antiques Roadshow recently came to Australia and one of the appraisers asked a lady where she had found the particular item she presented. She replied that she had found it while ‘fossicking around in the attic’. The word seemed to both amuse and astonish the appraiser, who had clearly never heard it before. Fossick does not appear in your Web site’s lengthy compendium and I wondered about its derivation.

A Fossick is a characteristically Australian word (and, let us not forget, of New Zealanders too). As you’ve discovered, it isn’t widely used in Britain, though there are so many Antipodean writers working in the media over here that the word is by no means unknown (my favourite paper, the Guardian, has included it several times this year alone).

These days, it means to search about in an unsystematic way in the hope of finding what you’re looking for, or just searching in the hope of turning up something interesting. My New Zealand dictionary also says it can refer to pottering about more or less aimlessly (a travel writer in the Guardian in October 2005 used it this way: “And so back on board, for a last fossick through the Kattegat and Skaggerak.”) But the original sense, and one that’s still used, is to search gold-mine waste dumps or abandoned claims in the hope of turning up a few overlooked nuggets. That dates from the late 1850s in Australia and a few years later in New Zealand.

Its origin isn’t altogether clear, but the experts point to Cornish dialect. Cornishmen were well represented in early migrants to both countries and were known everywhere for their expertise in hard-rock mining. The English Dialect Dictionary a century ago included the Cornish dialect fossick in the sense of “to obtain by asking; to ‘ferret out’”, as well as fursick or fossick, East Anglian words for pottering over one’s work, and fussock about, a rather more widely distributed dialect term for making a fuss or bustling about in an irritating way.

The truth is lurking in there somewhere.

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Page created 31 Dec 2005