fraught

There are some subjects and areas that you see looming large, like a freighter in the night, coming towards you, laden with loathsomeness, decked with difficulties, manned with merchants of mischance and minions of mendacity, ready to swamp you. And as the roiling waters close over you and the ship overbears you, you cry out, “And for aught? Augh!”

Ah, yes, those things in our lives that are fraught. How frightful! And doesn’t fraught seem like it should be a past tense of fright? But actually it’s related to freight – it was first a noun for the cargo of a ship, then a verb meaning “load a ship”, and finally a past participle adjective (unchanged in form) meaning “laden” or “equipped”.

Now, in all of that etymology, did you see a negative tone? Indeed, this word was not originally fraught with negativity. But over time the cargo has come to be a frightful one, and how can we not suspect the influence of fright? True, there are echoes as well of freight and fruit, but the English ablaut vowel progression of strong verb past tenses would seem to connect fright and fraught more strongly – and fret and fray may have a piece of the action too (not to mention fraud). And there’s that “aw” sound, with the mouth open as in shock of apprehension… Or as in the Charlie Brown exclamation of dismay: AAUGH!

And so, when something is fraught with something else (and with comes after fraught most of the time), that something else is danger, peril, difficulties, problems, risk, tension, uncertainty… often of a political nature. Something can also be fraught with potential, however… but that’s potential problems, potential for misunderstandings, potential conflicts of interest, potential for violence, potential pitfalls… you get the picture. Or it can just be fraught, and you are expected to understand (you are always expected to understand without being told!) what sorts of things it’s fraught with. Whoever is telling you may be good enough to say emotionally fraught.

This word certainly is dramatic, and rather high-toned. And, again, political, as in “the personal is political.” You may find it in literature, or magazine articles, or – I think almost inevitably – faculty meetings. The one thing you may be sure of is that it does not augur well; one would sooner hug a fart or, uh, graft a thug, frankly, than face that fraught freighter in the frothing firth.

Thanks to Rosemary Tanner for suggesting fraught.

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