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Is it a fray or an affray?

Q: Is there a difference between “fray” and “affray”?

A: “Fray” and “affray” are about as closely related as two words can be, but like human relatives they’ve grown apart over the years

The story begins in the 1300s when Middle English adopted “affray” from Anglo-Norman, first as a verb and later as a noun.

In Anglo-Norman, affrayer meant to frighten or disturb, and an affray meant a fright or disturbance. (We’ve omitted several variant Anglo-Norman spellings.)

When the verb showed up in English, spelled “affraie,” it meant to frighten. Although that sense is now archaic, the medieval past tense and past participle, “afreyd,” gave us the adjective “afraid.”

The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330:

“Now goþ Gij sore desmaid, / His woundes him han iuel afreyd” (“Now goeth Guy sorely dismayed / His evil wounds have him afraid”). A literal translation of the second line would be “His evil wounds have terrified him,” but we wanted to preserve the rhyme.

The first OED example for the noun is from Sir Ferumbras, a Middle English romance written around 1380: “Þan was þe Sarsyn in gret affray & niste wat was to donde” (“Then the Saracen was in great fright and bewildered by what to do”).

When the noun “fray” showed up at the end of the 1300s, it also referred to a fright, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED describes the evolution of “fray” from “affray” as aphetic—that is, by the loss of an unstressed initial vowel. We suspect that the first vowel of “affray” may have been mistaken for an indefinite article, so the term was misunderstood as “a fray.”

The earliest citation in the OED for “fray” is from John Trevisa’s 1398 English translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a Latin encyclopedia compiled by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman).

The quotation refers to the mystical power of a chrysolite stone that “helpeþ nyȝte frayes and dredes” (“helps with the frights and dreads of the night”).

Meanwhile, the longer noun “affray” took on the sense of a “disturbance, a commotion; an outburst,” according to the dictionary, apparently influenced by its Anglo-Norman meaning.

The first Oxford example for the new sense is from John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis (written sometime before 1393):

“Sche began to crien … / And with that noise of hire affray / Hir wommen sterten up.” (The citation describes how Alceone cries out as she dreams that her husband, Ceyx, is dead, and how the affray, or outburst, awakens her servants.)

A few decades later, the shorter noun “fray” took on a similar sense that the OED describes as a “disturbance, esp. one caused by fighting; a noisy quarrel, a brawl; a fight, skirmish, conflict.”

The dictionary’s first written example is from Chronicon Vilodunense (circa 1420), a chronicle of events concerning Wilton Abbey, a Benedictine convent in Wiltshire, England:

“And all þe ladyes … Of þis grete fraye þe wheche þye sie and herden, weren Sore agast” (“And all the ladies … were sorely aghast at this great fray which they saw and heard”).

The words “affray” and “fray” have had several other meanings over the years, but the one that sets them apart showed up in the 1400s, when “affray” became a legal term for a “breach of the peace caused by fighting or rioting in a public place,” or “the offence of taking part in such a disturbance,” according to the OED.

The dictionary has an earlier questionable citation, but its first clear-cut record of the usage is from the Chronicles of England (1480), a legendary and historical account produced by the English printer and writer William Caxton:

“Also this yere was a grete affraye in fletstrete by nyghtes tyme bitwene men of court & men of london.” The citation apparently refers to the 1441 rioting in Fleet Street between law students at the Inns of Court and residents of the area.

In England and Wales, the OED notes, the common-law offense of “affray” became a statutory offense under the Public Order Act of 1986, which defined it as “the use or threat of unlawful violence towards another, such as would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety.”

Under the statute, the dictionary says, the offense “need not be committed in a public place, and is distinguished from riot and violent disorder in that only one person need be involved.”

But in general use, Oxford adds, “an affray is still considered to be a disturbance as defined above”—that is, fighting or rioting in public.

How are “fray” and “affray” used today?

Standard dictionaries define “fray” as a commotion, quarrel, brawl, or dispute, and “affray” as a noisy quarrel or brawl, especially in a public place.

As you can see, the two words overlap quite a bit, but “fray” is the broader term, and it’s usually used for nonviolent conflicts, while “affray” is most often seen in reference to quarrels or brawls that involve the police.

The legal use of “affray” is especially common in Britain and its former colonies, according to our searches in the NOW Corpus, a database of  4.3 billion words published in web-based newspapers and magazines since 2010.

Here are a few examples from the UK:

“On Thursday, McKenzie received five-month prison sentences on each affray, to run consecutively, after pleading guilty.” (From the May 4, 2017, issue of the Nottingham Post.)

“Moss, of Pilots Way, Victoria Dock, pleaded guilty to affray in Hull Magistrates Court after turning up late to the first day of trial.” (From the April 29, 2017, issue of the Hull Daily Mail.)

“Dempsey was locked up for nine years for affray and robbery offences.” (From the April 23, 2017, issue of the Grimsby Telegraph.)

Although the legal usage is more common in the UK, it also shows up in the US, as in these examples:

“City Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance that will make it possible for the Alamogordo Municipal Court to hear public affray citation cases.” (From the April 12, 2017, issue of the Alamogordo [NM] Daily News.)

“His second arrest was on March 14 on a charge of simple affray.” (From the May 5, 2017, issue of the Shelby [NC] Star.)

“Two juveniles were cited into juvenile court on suspicion of affray at 205 Caruthers Ave.” (From an April 21, 2017, police report in the Southeastern Missourian.)

When “fray” is seen in print, whether in the US or the UK, the conflicts are generally not physical. Here are a few examples from recent headlines:

“Can American Express Stay Above The Fray In The Credit-Card Wars?” (Forbes, April 6, 2017.)

“PM sticks to script as Boris Johnson enters election fray.” (BBC News, April, 27, 2017.)

“Justice Neil Gorsuch dives into the fray at first Supreme Court arguments.” (The Altus [OK] Times, April 20, 2017.)

Of the two words, we’d use “fray” unless we were referring to the specific legal offense of “affray.”

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