Thursday, October 25, 2012

Language of Confusion: Fear Itself

It is the season for the spooky and scary, so why don’t we make it all boring by talking about the origins of words that mean frightened. Shall we get started?

Fear: The emotional sense we now call fear did not show up until the twelfth century. During that time, the Old English word faer (noun) or faeran(verb), from which fear descends, meant “sudden danger”. It can be traced further back into the Proto Germanicferaz, meaning danger, and the Proto Indo European per-, which meant something like “to risk”.

Dread: Back when fear was just danger, dread was one of the words for the emotion. It showed up in the late twelfth century as a shortening of adraedan, which itself was short for ondraedanbecause of course it wasn’t short enough. Anyway, besides the meaning we know today, dread also meant “advise against”. Ondraedan is in fact the combination of two Old English words, on- and raedan (you should only need one guess on what that word turned into), which meant advise.

Fright: Surprisingly enough, not etymologically related to fear. It comes from the Old English fryhto,  which was a mess up (or metathesisif you want to get technical) of fyrhtu, another word for fear. Fyrhtu can be traced to the Proto Germanic furkhtaz and although it can’t be traced further, it’s easy to see how different it is from the fear line.

Scare: Also showed up in the early thirteenth century, in this case from the Old Norseskirra, to frighten, and related to skjarr, timid. Further back? Another mystery.

Horror: first showed up in the early fourteenth centuryfrom the Old French word horror (speaking of mysteries) which was taken from the classical Latinhorror (okay, now they’re not even trying to come up with their own word). The Latin horror did have a similar meaning to our horror although only in the figurative sense—literally it was shudder or trembling, which can be the physical reaction of fear. It can be traced all the way back to the Proto Indo European ghers, bristle, as in hair standing on end.

Terror: Showed up with the same definition as in modern times in the late fourteenth century. It came from the Old French terreurand classical Latin terrorem. It also can be traced back to Proto Indo European, from the word tre-, meaning tremble, and which has variations that are the ancestors of terrible, trepidationand tremendous.

Tony Jebson’s page on The Origins of Old English


  1. French stole from Latin? I thought they had rules against taking words from other languages.

  2. What a perfect post for the halloween season!

  3. Appropriate time of year for that...

    Faeran would be a good word to keep in mind for a character name, come to think of it...


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