What’s the Difference Between “Frantic” and “Frenetic”?

By Mark Nichol

Frantic and frenetic share a common etymological source — along with frenzy and words associated with psychiatric conditions and a discredited pseudoscience — but the adjectives differ in connotation.

The words derive from the Greek noun phrenitis, meaning “inflammation of the brain.” Phrenetikos, the adjectival form, was borrowed into Latin as phreneticus, which led to the Old French word frenetik. Both frantic and frenetic derived from the French term, with a divergence of meaning. Although they can be used interchangeably, frantic implies severe agitation in a distraught state, whereas frenetic suggests excessively energetic or fast-paced activity.

The adverbial and nominal forms of frantic are frantically (originally franticly) and franticness, and those of frenetic are frenetically and freneticism. Frenzied is the adjectival form of frenzy. Archaic forms for frenetic (phrenetic) and frenzy (phrenzy) appear rarely.

The noun frenzy, cousin to frantic and frenetic, originally meant “delirium” or “insanity,” but though it technically refers to temporary madness or to violent agitation, the modern sense is mostly likely to be more casual, referring to intense behavior, such as in the phrase “feeding frenzy,” associated with the unrestrained eating habits of sharks, for example. (By extension, that phrase now has a figurative sense of numerous people criticizing or taking advantage of a vulnerable person or organization.)

The basic Greek root, phren- (meaning “diaphragm” or “mind”) is seen in various psychiatric contexts. Phrenic means “pertaining to the diaphragm or the mind” and is rare in lay usage, but most people are familiar with the suffix –phrenia (meaning “mental disorder”), best known in the noun schizophrenia and the adjective schizophrenic (the latter often used loosely to refer to inconsistent behavior).

What’s the connection between diaphragm and mind? In classical times, the diaphragm, adjacent to and associated with the heart, was considered the seat of emotions, and the brain was considered the seat of thought, so they were thought to be analogous.

The Greek term was also applied to phrenology and associated words referring to a pseudoscience in which measurements of the skull supposedly indicated the strength of certain mental faculties and personality traits. Though the precepts of phrenology have long since been considered outside the realm of proper science, they are echoed in neurological theories about how various parts of the brain carry out different functions.

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3 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between “Frantic” and “Frenetic”?”

  • Dale A. Wood

    “adjectives differ in connotation”

    Good for you: It is amazing that nowadays so few people know that words and phrases have connotations as well as denotations.

    I went to school in Alabama, a poor state that is often a sad state of affairs in many ways. Still, I was taught about connotations and denotations in English classes. We used those exact words.

    I have also had many occasions when I was telling the absolute truth, yet people made statements that implied that I was lying.
    I told them, “You’re calling me a liar?”, but then they ramble on about how “I never called you a liar.” What a bunch of baloney.
    The connotations of what they they said were that I was lying to them, despite the fact that the denotation never used the word “liar”. My feelings were, “I want to choke you with my bare hands.”
    Not only did these people call me a liar, but they were unwilling to take responsibility for what they had just said.

  • Dale A. Wood

    By the way, back during the 1960s, both my sister and I told our father that we wanted to go live somewhere else besides Alabama, but he wouldn’t do anything. Our mother was remarkably silent on the question.

    My sister and I wanted to be away from racism, George Wallace, poor schools (especially monetarily speaking), poor this and poor that, air pollution, and so forth.

    About the latter: we lived in the same county with Birmingham and Bessemer, and their huge iron and steel industries. The mills polluted the air seven days a week, and neither the greedy corporations nor the State government did anything about it.

    It wasn’t until the passage of the Federal Clean Air Act and the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) was anything done about industrial air pollution in Alabama and the other states**. By the way, the EPA was founded by Congress and the law was signed by President Richard M. Nixon.

    **Industrial air pollution used to be a big problem in and around such steelmaking places as Baltimore, Bethlehem, Pa., Pittsburgh, Gary, Ind., Allentown, and Cleveland – and around the chemical plants of Louisiana, Texas, et cetera.

  • Roberta B.

    Dale A. Wood – You should think about writing your own blog with your recollections and ponderings (if you are not doing that already).

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