How did "fraught" come to include the second definition? What is the connection?

FRAUGHT adjective:

1. (of a situation or course of action) filled with or destined to result in (something undesirable). "marketing any new product is fraught with danger" synonyms: full of, filled with, rife with; attended by, accompanied by

2. causing or affected by great anxiety or stress. "there was a fraught silence"

synonyms: anxious, worried, stressed, upset, distraught, overwrought


fraught (adj.) 14c., "freighted, laden, loaded, stored with supplies" (of vessels); figurative use from early 15c.; past participle adjective from obsolete verb fraught "to load (a ship) with cargo," Middle English fraughten (c. 1400), which always was rarer than the past participle, from noun fraught "a load, cargo, lading of a ship" (early 13c.), which is the older form of freight (n.).

This apparently is from a North Sea Germanic source, Middle Dutch vrecht, vracht "hire for a ship, freight," or similar words in Middle Low German or Frisian, apparently originally "earnings," from Proto-Germanic fra-aihtiz "property, absolute possession," from fra-, here probably intensive + aigan "be master of, possess" (see owe (v.)). Related: Fraughtage.

From etymonline: fraught

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    Related: Is it ok to use 'fraught' without saying what the thing is fraught with? I say "related" because my answer there looks into the question you ask, although it isn't exactly the question that the OP there was interested in.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 1, 2015 at 8:49
  • @Sven Yargs - So than the mechanics of the word's development are that the use of the adjective "fraught," meaning "full of," is so frequently associated with circumstances which engender anxiety (ominous, dangerous) that, over time, "fraught," itself, comes to assume the meaning of strong anxiety (noun)? Correct? Is such development (accretion) a common linguistic dynamic?
    – user98990
    May 1, 2015 at 15:38
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    Certainly "fraught with peril," "fraught with danger," and the like were common instances of "fraught"—but in the early 1900s I also find instances of "fraught with meaning" (a fairly neutral notion) , as well as "fraught with peace" and "fraught with blessings and benefits" (unmistakably positive nouns). I'll take a look at some of the more-recent matches for "fraught with" and see if they become more unrelentingly negative as the decades go by. If I come up with anything answer-worthy, I'll post it as a separate answer here.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 2, 2015 at 0:36
  • @Sven Yargs - excellent, look also for solo "fraught" w/out negative.ominous meaning. Thank you.
    – user98990
    May 2, 2015 at 15:56

2 Answers 2


The following extract from The New York Times Magazine illustrates very well the evolution and usage of the term:

W.F. Young asks: "Long ago I developed the expectation that on encountering the word fraught, I'd find it associated with a prepositional phrase, 'with [something].' Now, in old age, I find that expectation dashed, often. Can you say what it was based on and anything about when, how or by whom it was undercut?"

  • Here we have a case of a very old word undergoing a rapid shift in contemporary usage. In Middle English, fraught (an etymological cousin of freight) was a verb meaning "to load (a ship)," and the identical form could serve as a past participle meaning "laden (with)." While the verb dropped out of the language almost entirely, the past participle stuck around, typically followed by "with" and an object -- often a burden, whether real or figurative.

Regarding your question:

  • Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning "distressed, anxious, tense," without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation. When the word cropped up on William Safire's radar in 2006, he offered a line from "King Lear" as a putative early example: Goneril tells her father to "make use of that good wisdom, whereof I know you are fraught." But Shakespeare did use fraught with a preposition, whereof, and an object, wisdom, so it is in fact very much in line with the usage of the era. Lear was surely in a distressed emotional state, but that wasn't what his daughter was driving at.

  • By the nineteenth century, the metaphorical extension of the word had developed a new twist. Instead of the traditional phrasing, fraught with followed by an object (something usually unpleasant or unfortunate), the object could appear before fraught in a hyphenated compound, such as danger-fraught, pain-fraught or war-fraught. Thus if a moment was fraught with emotion, it could just as well have been described as emotion-fraught or in time as emotionally fraught, signaling the implied object in the adverb.

  • The first glimmers of fraught without even a hint of an object start appearing in the 1920s and '30s. The earliest example I've found so far comes from a 1925 serialized story by Henry Leyford Gates about a flapper named Joanna. In one installment Gates writes, "It was Joanna who at last broke the fraught silence." The lyrical phrase fraught silence, perhaps evoking pregnant pause, shows up again in books from 1934, 1946 and 1958. Another early use is in George O'Neil's 1931 novel about the poet John Keats, "Special Hunger": "For Keats this was a singularly fraught circumstance." Circumstances, along with anxiety-ridden situations, issues and relationships, would soon become familiar companions for fraught.

  • Standalone fraught picked up steam in the 1960s, attracting the notice of dictionaries and usage guides, but the last couple of decades have seen an even stronger uptick. In the texts collected in the Corpus of Contemporary American English from 1990 to 1994, only about 9 percent of the instances of fraught do not take the preposition with. From 2005 to 2009, however, the rate jumps to a whopping 30 percent. The usage has become a journalistic commonplace, as in the recent New York Times headlines, "For New Stadium, a Fraught Coin Flip" and "Opera Companies' Fraught Seasons." No doubt about it, we're living in fraught times.


It is not unusual for participles to acquire a sort of generic meaning peculiar to a specific context: consider a loaded question or a charged atmosphere, where we do not need to ask with what the question is loaded or the atmosphere is charged.

As etymonline tells you, the literal sense of fraught has been obsolete for some centuries. It occurs today only in fairly clichéd phrases where the freight involved is some intense emotion: "fraught with distress", "fraught with anger". It is perfectly natural that with that sort of limit on its use it should be genericized to its contemporary meaning.

  • +1, thanks Stoney. So than the mechanics are that "fraught" as "full of" collocates so frequently with circumstances of an ominous and/or dangerous character, which routinely engender strong anxiety, that fraught, itself, takes on the connotation of strong anxiety until fraught comes to mean that very thing?
    – user98990
    Apr 30, 2015 at 21:28
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    @LittleEva That's my read on it. I doubt that 99% of the people who use fraught have any notion of its etymology: it's just the 'right' word to use with emotions of stress, anxiety, tension and the like. May 1, 2015 at 0:49

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