What does ‘ossified’ 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: ossified….

I recently finished reading a book that made many top 10 lists for 2017 and was a New York Times bestseller: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

The story of three generations of a black family living in rural Mississippi, the book is relentlessly bleak but also exquisitely written. I’ll be talking more about this, tomorrow, when I explore the remarkable figurative language of Jesmyn Ward.

Meanwhile, however, Ward has given me my word of the week, ossified. Here is how she used it:

When they [the dogs] saw Riv in the dark morning, they bounced and yapped, but when they saw me, they ossified to stone.

Of course, I already knew ossified meant (figuratively) to turn into something rigid, but I had no idea about the origins of the word. It turns out that os is the Latin word for bone and if something ossifies, it has turned into bone. The term first came into use in the 17th century. But the figurative meaning didn’t emerge until the mid-19th century.

Here’s an example of figurative use, shown in a 2018 sentence from the Wall Street Journal:

When Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985 and tried to reinvigorate the Soviet system, it was too ossified to change, too brittle to survive.