W.F. Young asks: “Long ago I developed the expectation that on encountering the word fraught, I’d find it associated with a prepositional phrase, ‘with [something].’ Now, in old age, I find that expectation dashed, often. Can you say what it was based on and anything about when, how or by whom it was undercut?”
Here we have a case of a very old word undergoing a rapid shift in contemporary usage. In Middle English, fraught (an etymological cousin of freight) was a verb meaning “to load (a ship),” and the identical form could serve as a past participle meaning “laden (with).” While the verb dropped out of the language almost entirely, the past participle stuck around, typically followed by “with” and an object — often a burden, whether real or figurative.
Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning “distressed, anxious, tense,” without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation. When the word cropped up on William Safire’s radar in 2006, he offered a line from “King Lear” as a putative early example: Goneril tells her father to “make use of that good wisdom, whereof I know you are fraught.” But Shakespeare did use fraught with a preposition, whereof, and an object, wisdom, so it is in fact very much in line with the usage of the era. Lear was surely in a distressed emotional state, but that wasn’t what his daughter was driving at.
By the nineteenth century, the metaphorical extension of the word had developed a new twist. Instead of the traditional phrasing, fraught with followed by an object (something usually unpleasant or unfortunate), the object could appear before fraught in a hyphenated compound, such as danger-fraught, pain-fraught or war-fraught. Thus if a moment was fraught with emotion, it could just as well have been described as emotion-fraught or in time as emotionally fraught, signaling the implied object in the adverb.
The first glimmers of fraught without even a hint of an object start appearing in the 1920s and ’30s. The earliest example I’ve found so far comes from a 1925 serialized story by Henry Leyford Gates about a flapper named Joanna. In one installment Gates writes, “It was Joanna who at last broke the fraught silence.” The lyrical phrase fraught silence, perhaps evoking pregnant pause, shows up again in books from 1934, 1946 and 1958. Another early use is in George O’Neil’s 1931 novel about the poet John Keats, “Special Hunger”: “For Keats this was a singularly fraught circumstance.” Circumstances, along with anxiety-ridden situations, issues and relationships, would soon become familiar companions for fraught.
Standalone fraught picked up steam in the 1960s, attracting the notice of dictionaries and usage guides, but the last couple of decades have seen an even stronger uptick. In the texts collected in the Corpus of Contemporary American English from 1990 to 1994, only about 9 percent of the instances of fraught do not take the preposition with. From 2005 to 2009, however, the rate jumps to a whopping 30 percent. The usage has become a journalistic commonplace, as in the recent New York Times headlines, “For New Stadium, a Fraught Coin Flip” and “Opera Companies’ Fraught Seasons.” No doubt about it, we’re living in fraught times.
Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.