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The Oxford Etymologist waxes emotional: a few rambling remarks on fear

It is well-known that words for abstract concepts at one time designated concrete things or actions. “Love,” “hatred,” “fear,” and the rest developed from much more tangible notions.  The words anger, anguish, and anxious provide convincing examples of this trend. All three are borrowings in English: the first from Scandinavian, the second from French, and the third from Latin. In Old Norse (that is, in Old Icelandic), angr and angra meant “to grieve” and “grief” respectively. But in Gothic, a Germanic language known from a fourth-century translation of the New Testament, the adjective aggwus (pronounced as angwus) meant “narrow.” Being (metaphorically) in “a narrow place”—between the hammer and the anvil, for example, or between the Devil and the deep sea—produced anger and anguish. Modern German still has enge “narrow” and Angst “fear.” Angst has even made it into English, along with Schadenfreude, Weltschmerz, and a few other German words for troublesome emotions.

It is hard not to feel fear in a narrow place. Image credit: painting of Odysseus’s boat passing between the six-headed monster Scylia and the whirlpool Charybdis by Alessandro Allori. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The development from “narrow” to “pain; extreme unease” is not only a Germanic phenomenon. Related to German enge are Russian uz-kii “narrow” and uzh-as “horror” (the root once had n after the vowel), Latin angor “anxiety,” and their cognates in the Iranian languages (Sanskrit and Avesta), Celtic, and Baltic. Engl. anger turned up close to the end of the twelfth century, in Ormulum, a poem mentioned in this blog more than once. Anguish appeared in texts more or less at the same time. Anxiety, anxious, and angina are the latest newcomers from Romance. Angina suggests stenosis, which is indeed a narrowing of a passage in the body, a spasm in the chest (Greek stenós “narrow”). Stenography “writing in shorthand” is a much more peaceful word, but it has the same Greek root.

We observe a similar picture, wherever we look at words designating fear. For instance, the relatively innocent English verb startle belongs here. In Old English, steartlian meant “to kick; struggle.” In some British dialects, it still means “to rush.”  Even in Shakespeare’s days, to startle meant “to cause to start.” But when we start or are made to start something with surprise, we are startled. Much more dramatic examples are German Schreck “fright” and schrecken “to frighten.” A thousand years ago, the verb meant only “to jump up,” and a trace of it has been retained in the German name of the locust (Heuschrecke, that is, “hay jumper,” which modern speakers take for “hay horror”). We jump up in fear, when we are startled; hence schrecken. The noun Schreck is a so-called back formation from the verb; it looks as though schrecken were from Schreck, but this impression is wrong. However, a noun derived from a verb by back formation is indeed most unusual. As a rule, the process goes in the opposite direction: kidnap form kidnapper, babysit form babysitter, and so forth. Adjectives are also occasionally curtailed in this way: compare sleaze from sleazy.

Medieval ferries looked quite different from ours! Image credit: Project for sailing ships upstream by Unknown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Strangely, the origin of the noun fright, though it has congeners all over Germanic, is obscure Comparison with numerous words in Greek, Latin, Tocharian, and other languages is unrevealing, because those putative relatives also mean “fright” and therefore tell us nothing about the possible initial meaning. It seems that the word is specifically Germanic. Naturally, it has been suggested that its origin should be sought in the substrate (some non-Indo-European language of the indigenous population of the lands later settled by Germanic speakers). Since nothing is known about that mysterious language or the conditions under which fright was presumably borrowed, we, who are not faint-hearted, will let this hypothesis be and go on.

The folk etymological idea of the locust being horror is more to the point than the real one. Image credit: Garden locust (Acanthacris ruficornis), Ghana by Charles J Sharp. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

As a consolation prize, we are allowed to examine fear. Old Eng. fær (long æ) meant “sudden calamity, danger.” Its cognates have instructive meanings: “ambush” (Old Saxon); “ambush; stratagem; deceit” (Old High German); “misfortune; damage; enmity” (Old Norse). In earlier German, “fear” also turned up as one of the senses of those words. Ambush looks like an ideal semantic basis for “fear,” but, of course, it can be a derivative, rather than the source of “fear” (we are afraid and think of an ambush, the place of great danger: one never known who is hidden in the bushes round the corner; perhaps there is an ambush there).The Modern German noun for “fear” is Gefahr, and, among its older meanings, we find “deceit” and “pursuit, persecution.” All in all, the idea the word fear conveyed was rather probably connected with “pursuit” and “ambush.”

Image credit: The Scarecrow of Batman cosplayer at the 2014 Amazing Arizona Comic Con at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
If panic is from Pan, couldn’t there be some pre-Germanic god Furht, from whose name we have fright? Image credit: Illustration page 102 of the book Collection of Emblems or Table of Sciences and Moral Virtues by Jean Baudoin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In English, the native word met Anglo-Norman afrayer “to alarm, startle, frighten,” whose past participle eventually yielded afraid, but fear seems to have developed independently of its partial French look-alike. It may be worthy of note that folk etymology connects German Gefahr with the verb fahren “to travel.”  Its English cognate is fare (the noun and the verb: pay your fare, she fared pretty well; farewell), but its reconstructed Indo-European root por is of unclear origin. Be that as it may, even though in old days travel was fraught with danger, Gefahr is not a product of fahren (Old Engl. faran).

By contrast, Engl. ferry is indeed a congener of fare (verb). Some verbs are related the way sit is related to set (I wanted to write “as lie is related to lay,” but then thought better of it and left that pernicious pair alone). Set means “to cause one (or something) ‘to sit’.” That is why such verbs are called causative. Occasionally they are easy to recognize (set versus sit poses no problems; neither does raise next to rise). Others have a more, even much more complicated history: thus, the causative of drink is drench (hard to guess!), and the “real” causative of rise is rear: raise is a borrowing from Scandinavian and is irregular form the phonetic point of view. (Startle, in its obsolete meaning “to make start” would be a causative of start.) The causative of Old Engl. faran was ferian, Modern Eng. ferry. The German causative verb of fahren is führen, known only too well from Führer.

Above, I expressed doubts about the substrate origin of fright. But of course, nouns and verbs meaning “fear” can be borrowed. Such are Engl. horror, terror, and panic (panic goes back to the name of the Greek god Pan, whose shouts struck terror in the hearts of those who heard them). However, English is a special case: in the Middle Ages, it absorbed thousands of French words and later added numerous words taken over from Latin. Yet to justify the idea of a loan word from a substrate, one needs more than the historical linguist’s inability to find that word’s origin. In any case, let us rejoice that heebie-jeebies is a native coinage. The word’s author is the American cartoonist W. B. Beck, who used it in his comic strip Barney Google (1923). Just Google for it. Another native word is dread, the subject of the next installment.

Featured Image: Only a narrow escape is possible from this script. Featured Image Credit: A selection of George Halliday’s journal written in Pitman shorthand by George Halliday. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Masha Bell

    I am often amazed by the English forms of words from German roots, such as ‘Nacht – night, durch – through, obwohl -although… ‘Furcht’ becoming ‘fright’ seems much the same to me.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    Shouldn’t a word in another influential language that “sounds similar” and “means the same” (more or less) be the more likely root than a word that “sounds similar” but “means different”?

    You write,

    “[in Icelandic], angr and angra meant “to grieve” and “grief” respectively.”

    How do we go from the word “grief” to the word “anger”? Without a made-up story?

    In my opinion, English “anger” likely derives from Greek “agrios” (angry).
    Just as the English “anguish” likely derives from the Greek “anhos” (anguish). And the English “fright” comes from the Greek “frihto” (fright). And the English “fear” from the Greek “fovos” (fear). And the English “terror” from the Greek “terras” (frightful beast).


  3. Anne

    While translating captions on scenic and rural photos from Russian (not professionally, but for my Pinterest hobby) I discovered something odd.

    Russian has a word ферма that looks like a near transliteration of English “farm.” It has the same meaning.

    My first thought, that “farm” had to be a basic word in English for centuries is wrong. Farms that are worked by their owners are a recent phenomenon.

    According to Etymology Online, it’s from Old French, “ferme” meaning to rent or lease, and ultimately back to Latin.

    A friend who is an amateur linguistics type checked all the Slavic languages and almost all a similar word. Even Hungarian has one.

    I thought perhaps it came under Communism with “collective farms.” But a Polish and Russian speaker, who lived in Communist Poland told us,

    >>> the collective farms in the Soviet Union were called колхоз [pron.- kolkhoz ] which is a portmanteau comprised of коллективныйe and хозяйствo<<>> The word “хозяйствo” [pron. haziaistvo] technically means “economy” or “enterprise”, however, in this case means a collectively run agricultural farm. <<<

    So, no sign of farm. It’s also in modern German. In all these languages there were also other unrelated words that also meant “farm.”

    How did such a word get scattered so widely?

  4. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    why necessarily jump in fear? Latvian sākt (to start) is etymologically related to Lithuanian šokti (to jump), no reference to fear. One can start moving without any dreadful cause. Bēgt (run away) might retain some reference to fear. Shake and shock resemble similar causation though. Just wondering if see and show, think and thank are related in a similar way

  5. Constantinos Ragazas

    Masha Bell writes,

    “German roots, such as ‘Nacht – night”

    The English (and German) word “night” is likely the same Greek word “nihta” (night).

    I am not sure which came first, however. Since there are several other Greek words for “night”. Perhaps Anatoly can check the first attestation of “nihta” in Greek.



  6. Jules F Levin

    Vasmer [who may be superceded seems to think uz-kii and yzhas are not related. In the latter case the structure seems to be u + zhas–if -as is a suffix in Slavic it must be very rare. In CS the prefix is ou- –not a nasal vowel. On the other hand uzkii is indeed nasal vowel + z- with a -k- suffix.

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