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When confirming bad news, or replying to a request in the negative it is common to hear one of these two phrases:

I'm afraid so.

or

I'm afraid not.

The general meaning inferred by "I'm afraid" seems to be apologetic, as in: "I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news".

Is someone able to explain why we use this terminology and whether afraid in this sense is the same afraid we use to mean "to be fearful of something"? And if it is, what exactly is it that one is afraid of?

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This apologetic use of fear is not unique to English—in fact, it is not even limited to Indo-European languages. It is relatively ubiquitous with the Indo-European family (French je crains que, Latin tīmeō nē, Danish jeg er bange for at, Armenian ես վախենում եմ, etc.), but it is also not uncommon in other families (Finnish pelkään että, Chinese 恐怕, lit. ‘fear dread’, Japanese 恐れている, lit. ‘be fearful’). As such, I’d say it’s not really a question of explaining an etymology, but rather a question of a fairly natural development of a certain meaning, a common tendency. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 29 at 9:57

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Afraid can have three different meanings; fear, regret or dislike. The two latter forms doesn't really involve real fear, but rather just unease, and it's the second form that you show examples of.

It comes from old english affray, "frighten", and the adjective form of being frightened survived the verb. The first record of it being used in the meaning of regret is from the 1590s.

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So is there perhaps a link into the fear of repercussion or the response of the person to whom the regret is being shown? Or am I reading too much into it? –  Andy F Jan 8 '11 at 22:17
1  
@Andy F: That is one possible way that the word has come into this use. It's also possible that it was initially used to report a common threat, as in "I am afraid that the viking sails have been sighted again". Another alternative is that it was used to express fear for a possible outcome, as in "I'm afraid that it might not be that simple", and came to be used even when the outcome was certain, as in "I'm afraid that it's not that simple". –  Guffa Jan 8 '11 at 23:28
    
Thanks, that's an excellent analysis! –  Andy F Jan 9 '11 at 10:12

To the extent that I’m afraid expresses fear, it could be out of apprehension about the reaction that may come from the receiver of the information or opinion being given. And it is calculated to soften the blow of the unwelcome message—or rather the receiver’s reaction to that blow.

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