Christmas Greetings from a previous century. Ali Bacon reflects on how words change

Fraught can be a good thing!

Once again a friend whose interest in early photography merges into all kinds of printed ephemera has sent me a very charming Christmas card, which I guess is Victorian or possibly Edwardian and reads May your Christmas be fraught with every pleasure. But popping it on the mantle piece I had to read it twice because of course it sounds a little odd to our ears.  Feeling fraught around Christmas is hardly unusual but that's not usually the source of pleasure. 

So off I went to do some googling of definitions. Oxford Living Dictionaries:
"fraught with (of a situation or course of action) filled with or likely to result in (something undesirable)"
Yes, as I thought, but I guess there must at one time have been a usage without the negative connotations and Merriam-Webster provides the information that 'filled with' is the key concept.  Originally 'fraught' meant simply laden, as in a ship laden with cargo. (In fact the word freight is of similar derivation). Then it began to denote 'loaded with' or 'abounding in' in a more figurative sense. From there  it was a short step to meaning loaded with something unwanted, or simply 'characterized by emotional distress or tension'.

So there we have it. Once fraught became fraught in a bad way, it looks like there was no going back. And here we are a few days before Christmas and unless you are super-organised (or maybe even if you are super-organised) you are probably feeling fraught with that unavoidable tension. (The cake! The cranberries! The crackers!)  So I hope this little relic of days gone by is a reminder that things can be fraught with pleasure. And as that other poem says:  may it happen for you!

Happy Christmas

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. Discover more on her website


Umberto Tosi said…
Happy Christmas to you too, Ali! The gift of words is the greatest of all!
Griselda Heppel said…
I've spent several minutes googling the obsolete present tense of fraught, because I simply do not believe it can have been fraught (all I could find). The word is so clearly a past participle. I wonder if there was an Old English verb to fraugh, or frygh or similar (equivalent of the Dutch frachten) - or maybe it never was used in the present but simply borrowed straight from the Dutch in its past participle state. Fascinating stuff, language, as you say! Thanks for this intriguing post.

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