The Changing Uses of “Freak”

By Maeve Maddox

As a noun, freak is documented from the 1560s with the meaning “sudden turn of mind”:

The king, in a freak of anger, ordered the general’s execution.

From meaning “a sudden turn of mind,” freak came to mean “a trick” or “a prank”:

The boy was expelled for some boyish freak.

By the 18th century, freak could mean something extremely imaginative. The 1785 citation in the OED refers to a wonderful ice-palace as a “freak.”

The expression freak of nature gained currency in the 19th century. From that phrase derives freak in the sense of “something that has developed abnormally,” like a two-headed calf.

In modern informal speech, freak is used with a qualifying word to label someone as being “extremely committed to something”:

health freak
control freak
Jesus freak
vegan freak

The earliest example of this formation is from 1908: camera buffs were called kodak freaks.

Freak is also used as a verb:

to freak out: (occas. without out): to undergo an intense emotional experience, to become stimulated, to rave, esp. under the influence of hallucinatory drugs. Also trans., to cause (a person) to be aroused or stimulated in such a way. (OED)

The verb has in turn spawned the noun freak-out (also spelled without the hyphen):

Horse had a freak out in the trailer and cut hocks.

Freak has two adjective forms, freakish (1653) and freaky (1824). The highway official being quoted in a news story about the narrow escape of a motorist when a second lane marker came loose from the road must have been too rattled to think of either of these adjectives:

… this is just another freak accident, even freaker than before

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16 Responses to “The Changing Uses of “Freak””

  • Catherine

    You forgot one –

    A substitute for the “f” word, as in: “That was freaking awesome!”

    I cringe every time I hear it, especially out of the mouths of my sweet nieces.

  • Rebecca

    Or, “That was freakin awesome!”

  • Leah McClellan

    Or…in the mid-late 70s, “freak” was a social class in my high school along with rah-rahs, nerds, greasers, jocks, etc. Replaced hippy and implied “cool” and probable drug use of the recreational kind.

    Also used to mean a socially unacceptable (obnoxious, trouble-making) person: My neighbor is such a freak.

    Wow, she’s really freaky! Very unusual but cool and interesting.

    I didn’t know it went back so far 🙂

  • Sheri Matheson

    You forgot freak as a noun referring to one who is in a sideshow at a carnival.

  • John

    Regarding the use of the word “freaking”, if one were to complain about “the freakin’ weather” it could be because we’re having freak weather, rather than “damned” weather. On second thoughts, the person probably meant it as an explitive.

  • Eva Marie Everson

    I can think of a few other usages.

    “Le Freak” was a dance craze in the 70s. (c’est chic!)

    To be a “freak” in bed means to be pretty wild and without boundaries. (She’s a lady in the boardroom, a freak in the bedroom.)

    That’s my two!

  • Terisa

    What about the dance (so lewd it is forbidden in many high schools)?

  • G Gia

    FREAK from English Traits, Representative Men, and Other Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Mr. Landor carries to its height the love of freak which the English delight to indulge, as if to signalize their commanding freedom…..Landor is strangely undervalued in England … but year after year the scholar must still go back to Landor for a multitude of elegant sentences — for wisdom, wit, and indignation that are unforgettable.”

  • tmso

    I have to admit, I use freak in place of the f-word. As in: WTF(reak)?

  • Lauren

    Didn’t the officer mean, “even freakier than before”? If not, I must admit “freaker,” used in that way, is completely new to me…

  • Leah McClellan

    Oh and Eva reminded me of “to get your freak on” with bedroom connotations 🙂

  • Carol R. Wood

    Really enjoyed this word excursion. Thanks.

  • K’guy

    It was also the word used by hippies during the Hippie Movement to describe a hippie.

  • Andy Knoedler

    I am now a staid, 60-something teacher. But once I was a 20-year-old freak. I didn’t take kindly to being called a hippy; however, if someone called me a freak, I took it as a compliment.

  • Maeve

    Lauren,
    In the context of the flying highway markers, I don’t think that a comparative of “freak” was required. The first accident presumably involved a dislodged marker that hit a moving vehicle, but caused minor annoyance. In the second incident, the driver narrowly escaped being killed. Perhaps the following construction was wanted:

    “This was even more of a freak accident than the first.”

  • jessiethought

    There’s so many meanings to freak that it’s just–freaky!

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