Dear Word Detective: Recently, the British television show “Antiques Roadshow” did a series from Australia. I was astounded to hear the English presenter show confusion and ignorance at the statement of an Australian guest saying she had found a particular item at a junk shop whilst “fossicking” through the shelves. The words “fossick,” “fossicker” and “fossicking” are used so regularly in polite conversation in Australia that I was under the impression that it was in common use throughout the entire English-speaking world. Obviously not! It is not considered slang or idiom here. I am fully aware of its use: the words “search,” “searcher” and “searching” can be used with equal value. I am also aware that it came into use here during the gold rush days of the mid 1800’s, but I am unable to find its derivation. Can you help? — Ian Webley, Australia.
Whilst! You said “whilst.” That is such a cool word, and I wish it were commonly used here in the US. I’m tempted to try it out at the local mini-mart (“Please make me a Slurpee whilst I use your loo”), but I’m already under suspicion for wearing glasses. Real men don’t wear glasses around here. They either get laser eye surgery or suck it up and bump into things, which is why it’s always a good idea to stay inside during deer hunting season.
That episode of “Antiques Roadshow” must have made quite a splash in Australia, because one of your countrymen sent a similar question to Michael Quinion, a British lexicographer who runs the excellent World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org). It sounds as if the presenter (what we call a “host”) nearly had a nervous breakdown when confronted with “fossick.”
“Fossick” is indeed a quintessentially Australian word, and its original meaning does hark back to your country’s gold rush in the 19th century. “Fossicking” was essentially what we would call “scrounging” for gold — searching unattended, abandoned or depleted gold mining sites for the bits left behind, small nuggets that had to be pried out of crevices or picked from streams. Judging by the citations for this sense of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “fossicking” was considered marginal behavior and “fossickers” were not loved by more established miners.
By the late 19th century, “fossick” had made the leap into general usage with the modern meaning of “to search by rummaging around; to hunt for something.”
The origin of “fossick” is not known with certainty, but it appears to be rooted in the English (most likely from Cornwall) dialect word “fossick” meaning “to search.” The OED points to the same dialect word in another sense, that of “a troublesome person,” and the late etymologist Eric Partridge tied it to “fuss.” So evidently an English dialect word that originally meant “an annoying person” perhaps one who “fusses” over small things, was carried to Australia, probably by English immigrants, and became a term for searching for small items of value.