The Grammarphobia Blog

A fraughtful question

Q: Did modern usage evolve when I wasn’t looking to allow “fraught” to be used without a preposition to mean uptight or tense? I’ve always believed that the correct usage was “fraught with” something. Do you agree?

A: The adjective “fraught” can be used correctly with or without a preposition. Both usages are found in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

M-W, for example, defines the adjective in two ways: (1) “full of or accompanied by something specified – used with ‘with’ (a situation fraught with danger)”; and (2) “causing or characterized by emotional distress or tension (a fraught relationship).”

You can stop reading there if you want, but here’s a little history of “fraught” in case you’re interested.

The noun “fraught,” first recorded in about 1330, meant the cargo or lading of a ship, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says it’s derived from a Middle Dutch word, vracht, a variant of vrecht, the word that gave us “freight.”

In the 1400s, the noun “fraught” was used more generally to mean a burden or a load. (The noun eventually was replaced by the more popular “freight.”)

Around the same time, “fraught” was also briefly used as a verb meaning to load, and it was used both with and without prepositions (“to fraught their ships with salt” …. “if we fraught any stranger’s ship”).

The old verb eventually became obsolete, but the past participle lived on – in the 1300s and for a couple of centuries afterward, a ship that was laden or loaded was said to be “fraught” or “fraughted,” both with or without prepositions. Voila! We now had a past-participial adjective.

Since the adjective “fraught” originally meant “laden,” it’s natural that this sense of being laden or burdened would come to be used metaphorically for things other than cargo.

In the 1400s, the usage was extended to people and other things besides ships, though a preposition was usually tucked in there somewhere.

Here’s a quote from a play of the 1400s: “With rich rents thou shalt be fraught” (I’ve modernized the spellings). Here’s one from 1530: “fraught full of vice.” And here’s one from Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605): “I would you would make use of your good wisdom (whereof I know you are fraught).”

The bare adjective that simply means distressed or uptight, rather than “laden” with something, has no need for a preposition. This is a much newer usage, which the OED dates from 1966. Here are a few citations: “All that had gone before led me to expect an end more fraught” (1966); “the next day was going to be particularly fraught” (1967); “Don’t look so fraught” (1970).

Interestingly, the past participle “freighted” has also been used as an adjective meaning “loaded,” as in this 1850 quotation from Washington Irving’s biography of Oliver Goldsmith: “Just arrived from College … full freighted with academic gleanings.”

I’ve gone on a bit, haven’t I? I hope you don’t find this answer too freighted.

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