Hunting for fossils in the quirks of language

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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…Continue reading

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