What does the word “fossicking” mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: fossicking….

When I read the marvellous novel Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell, I learned a laundry list of new words including scrofulous, flensing and skep. And here’s another one to add to the list: fossicking.

Here is how O’Farrell used it:

Hamnet is out, down the path, into the backyard and at the door of the cookhouse, where his grandmother is fossicking in a barrel of onions and the maid is standing beside her.

As you can likely tell from context, the word means to rummage around in something. The original use of the term referred to searching for gold, so the word also carries the implication that what you are seeking is likely to have some value.

The term is now native to Australia and New Zealand, where it refers to people searching for gold or gemstones. But it may have its origins in a word known to immigrants from the United Kingdom: the word fussock, means “to bustle about” or “to fidget.” And another word sounding quite similar,  fossick, means to ferret out.

The image at the top of this post shows a more writerly interpretation of fossicking. It’s an old-fashioned card catalogue, from the days before Google, when one had to do research in the library. Each card contains the name of a single book or journal and can require seemingly endless hours of fossicking in order to produce the information the writer requires.

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