Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Delving into Words

Words can heal. Words can hurt. Words can bring the real world sharply into focus or wrap us in worlds that only exist in our imaginations. To experience some of the power of words to motivate one to act, check out Shonell Bacon's recent Blood Red Pencil post, How a SUD or Two Inspires Me into Action.

Words can also be a comfort. During these fraught times, I find myself turning more and more to an examination of words and language. Not so much the weighty words, such as justice, truth, and compassion, but random words and expressions that bubble up as I write. Since my Silver Rush mystery series takes place in the 19th century U.S. West, I need to be conscious of words, idioms, and slang that pop from my mind to keyboard to draft—are they contemporary to the times, or are they anachronistic?

Anachronistic or not? Thank goodness for references such as this one.
For instance, take the word "fraught," which I use in the paragraph just above. Step back, turn that word around in your mind, examine it. How does it "feel" to you? What is its origin, its precise definition? How long has it been around as part of the English language, and has it always held its current meaning?

To me, fraught has a feeling of peril about it, perhaps because the phrase fraught with danger comes to mind.

 So, let's delve a bit into fraught.

According to, the adjective fraught is defined as: (1) filled, charged, or loaded (with); (2) emotional, tense, anxious, distressing, etc.

No wonder I associate "danger" with the word fraught. Now, how and when did this word arise? One of my favorite resources for this kind of information is the Online Etymology Dictionary. It doesn't always have what I'm looking for, but this time, we're in luck. It has a nice entry on fraught, packed with information:
late 14c., "freighted, laden, loaded, stored with supplies" (of vessels); figurative use from early 15c.; past-participle adjective from obsolete verb fraught "to load (a ship) with cargo," Middle English fraughten (c. 1400), which always was rarer than the past participle, from noun fraught "a load, cargo, lading of a ship" (early 13c.), which is the older form of freight (n.). 
This apparently is from a North Sea Germanic source, Middle Dutch vrecht, vracht "hire for a ship, freight," or similar words in Middle Low German or Frisian, apparently originally "earnings," from Proto-Germanic *fra-aihtiz "property, absolute possession," from *fra-, here probably intensive + *aigan "be master of, possess" (from Proto-Indo-European root *aik- "be master of, possess"). Related: Fraughtage.
Now here is a very fraught ship.
Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1854
If you want to really fall down the rabbit hole of research, you can check out this entry for yourself and click on *aik.

Merriam-Webster also does a deep dive into fraught, even resurrecting the 14th century poem in which the word first occurs. My pleasant meanderings through etymology and research vanished when I read the entry's "Recent Examples on the Web." One of the examples quotes a June 17, 2020, article by Kyle Chayka that appears in The New Yorker: "The public realm has become fraught, to an extreme." (Ooooh yes it certainly has, in many many ways.)

 From 14th to 21st century, in the space of a few words.

If you are curious about the whys and wherefores of words and phrases such as stultiloquy, the game is not worth the candle, and out of kilter, I invite you to check out my blog, where I post my Slang-o-Rama musings on Wednesdays. And, I take requests! If there's a phrase or word that you are curious about, just give me a holler and I'll add it to my list for future posts...

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for "editor/writer"). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit for more information.


  1. I often have to look up words to see if they were in use in the 1830s...and that leads to looking up old phrases like "kicked the bucket" or "buying a pig in a poke." That kind of research can be addicting.

    1. Hi Pat! Sounds like you, too, have experienced the joy of falling down the rabbit hole of research. :-) Exploring slang and idioms are so much fun, right?

  2. Interesting post, Ann. I've had to look up where certain words have originated and from what languages. Glad that the online dictionaries expand on the definitions. Of course writing historical novels makes it imperative that you don't use a word that wasn't in use at the time of your story.

    1. Hi Polly! Online dictionaries have made things a whole lot easier... and it's nice to compare what they say (and I love Google ngram viewer for searching old books, etc.).

  3. Interesting as always.

    May compile a list of words for you, starting with mellow.

    Happy 4th!

    1. Hi Liz!
      Looking forward to your list! :-) Wishing you a good 4th as well!

  4. One of my favorite topics! When I'm writing one of my historicals, me and are best buddies.

  5. Hi Edith! Isn't it fun?? :-D However, I sometimes get sad when it turns out a phrase I really want to use didn't come into being until very much later.


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