One of the connotations of worry appears to be quite different from its more common usage : to be or cause to be anxious or uneasy, bother.


(transitive) to touch or poke repeatedly and idly, touch or rub constantly as in

"The old man worried his beads"


The above sense appears to suggest a sense of relaxation rather than uneasiness.

I could not find any reference to the above usage in Etymonline.

  • 'Worry beads' almost certainly uses this sense. May 22, 2020 at 11:57
  • I'll note that "worry" is, somewhat archaically, used in the sense of rubbing/chipping/grinding something to change it's shape. One might read something like "He worried a hole in the board with his pocket knife."
    – Hot Licks
    May 22, 2020 at 13:24

2 Answers 2


Worry LEXICO (Oxford)

  1. with object (of a dog or other carnivorous animal) tear at, gnaw on, or drag around with the teeth.

    ‘I found my dog contentedly worrying a bone’

2.1(of a dog) chase and attack (livestock, especially sheep)

‘a farmer shot a dog that had been worrying sheep’

2.2worry atno object Pull at or fiddle with repeatedly.

‘he began to worry at the knot in the cord’

Etymology LEXICO (Oxford)

Old English wyrgan ‘strangle’, of West Germanic origin. In Middle English the original sense of the verb gave rise to the meaning ‘seize by the throat and tear’, later figuratively ‘harass’, whence ‘cause anxiety to’ (early 19th century, the date also of the noun).

In concern to "he worried his beads", he's exhibiting a sign of anxiety by fiddling with the beads, as fiddling with the beads would be an attempt to help himself relax.

EDIT If you're referring to how "worry" changed from "strangle" to meaning anxious, then according to Quword:

The oldest sense was obsolete in English after c. 1600; meaning "annoy, bother, vex," first recorded 1670s, developed from that of "harass by rough or severe treatment" (1550s), as of dogs or wolves attacking sheep. Meaning "to cause mental distress or trouble" is attested from 1822; intransitive sense of "to feel anxiety or mental trouble" is first recorded 1860.

However, I have not come across anything which states how it changed from "strangle" to "the feeling of anxiety".

  • Thanks, but the source you are citing is not the OED but Lexico.com.
    – Gio
    May 22, 2020 at 12:36
  • Thanks! The Google page cited the source as OED. I've changed naming accordingly. May 22, 2020 at 12:42
  • So where does the usage come from? Your source says it is a “later figurative usage of causing harassment” which is not the case in question.
    – Gio
    May 22, 2020 at 12:45
  • To which usage are you referring, because in your question, you're asking about "He worried his beads" which would then link to the physical action of fiddling and plucking, similar to the motion of an animal savaging its prey, which was the original meaning of the word. May 22, 2020 at 12:52
  • More on its etymology here. May 22, 2020 at 13:05

To worry someone or something is when you don´t let them be. It´s like the beads have got a feeling of their own; thus would like to be at ease, but the man won´t give them even that chance as he was probably having a sweet sensation caresing them. We can say it´s a poetic sentence, it´s just to give the impression that the man´s hands were restless.

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