“Fraught” Is a Heavy Word

By Mark Nichol

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Fraught, one of my favorite words, is fraught with meaning.

The term, a variant of freight, was originally a noun and an adjective, with a verb form of fraughten. However, the noun, meaning “cargo,” disappeared from English (though it survives in Scottish), the verb is entirely extinct, and the adjectival form, which means “laden, full of” has survived only (with the exception, again, of Scottish) in its centuries-old figurative sense.

Now, when a situation is fraught, it is accompanied by, or full of, a feeling — usually danger, peril, or some synonymous (and usually sinister) quality. There are exceptions: Note the use in the first paragraph of this post, and a place can be said to be fraught with memories, which may be positive, negative, or a combination thereof.

However, because of the word’s often negative connotation, fraught has developed an additional sense of “uneasy,” and when used this way, it requires no object. For example, one might write, “We found ourselves in a fraught predicament.”

In conversation and in writing, use of the word is fraught with consequences: For one thing, it’s a fairly obscure term, though “fraught with (blank)” constructions are common enough to form a class of clichés. Furthermore, the use of fraught in the sense of a situation involving emotional turmoil may be unfamiliar to your audience.

But fraught is loaded with the strength of precision — its meanings are sparse and specific, so it packs a punch — and you should hesitate to allow a potent word’s relative rarity to disqualify it from your vocabulary.

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3 Responses to ““Fraught” Is a Heavy Word”

  • johnesh

    There is no such language as “Scottish”. I am a native speaker of both Scottish English and Scots and, while I admit it is in the dictionary, I have never before in my 36 years heard or seen this noun sense of “fraught”.

  • Alice Kemp

    The last sentence in this article seems self-contradictory. Should it not read, the section following the second em dash, ” … and you should not hesitate … “?

  • Curtis

    Alice Kemp —

    Look more carefully. The essence of that part of the sentence is “hesitate . . . to disqualify.”

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