I like embroidering my plainspoken, earthy, everyday, quotidian speech with particularly Victorianesque embellishments and verbally diabolic adornments that I dredge up from profligate readings of literature, ephemera, and old Monty Python sketches. Or maybe I just like words with lots of syllables.
To that end, I sometimes clot my electro-mails and casual conversation with antique or rarely heard (among my peers, anyway) vocabulary.
One that I use when I want to exaggerate my concern is fraught. It’s a word that I will see or hear often in the news yet hardly anywhere else. In the news, as with this story, it’s one of those received words, like “firestorm,” that is trotted out as verbal shorthand by newscasters for “a terrible situation” yet that I hardly ever hear in regular conversation. Fraught is a great word to use in headlines, like this one from the New York Times, because it’s only six letters. It packs maximum anxiety into minimal space.
My MacBook’s handy New Oxford American Dictionary defines fraught in its predicate adjective form (fraught with) as “filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable)”: marketing any new product is fraught with danger. The second definition is “causing or affected by great anxiety or stress,” as in she sounded a bit fraught.
Here’s the fun part:
ORIGIN late Middle English, ‘laden, provided, equipped,’ past participle of obsolete fraught [load with cargo,] from Middle Dutch vrachten, from vracht ‘ship’s cargo.’ Compare with freight.
So fraught is a cousin to the word freight! And freight is descended from a variant of vrachten. Fascinating. Freight itself is a neutral word — cargo, transport — though freighted with can be a figure of speech for “be laden or burdened with.”
Interesting how word meanings diverge. The world of commerce needed a word for cargo and baggage, the inner world needed another.
I wonder if the vowel sound in fraught, with its similarity to awful, may somehow help to twin those words in our minds. Awful is more immediate and personal, whereas fraught sounds a bit distant, higher up the hill from the fray. Awful grabs the guts, fraught keeps the mess at arm’s length while acknowledging the high emotions.
I hope this disquisition on fraught has not been for naught nor has made you overwrought. (What rot.)