August 5, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: whence & fraught or fraught with

Posted in fraught/fraught with, whence at 9:53 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Tip 1: Whence

A reader writes:

I would very much like to add my voice to the very deserved praise in this list of comments. Your blog is very addictive reading, and I have learned an awful lot.

I have one question that you may be able to help with. In a peer-review of an academic paper, I was told I should not use ‘whence’ in, “…depends only upon the words, and not on the documents whence they came.” I don’t believe ‘whence’ is too stuffy or archaic, and it seems less neat to use ‘from which they came’. Also, as the word ‘hence’ is still popular there seems no reason to drop ‘whence’.

I would be very grateful to hear your views.

I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you are using ‘whence’ correctly which is something few people do. The bad news is that you are using ‘whence’ at all which is something few people do.

Let me explain. Most people would use ‘from’ with whence (e.g., from whence it came) without realizing that ‘from’ is built into the definition of ‘whence’ which is ‘from what place, origin, or source.’ So saying ‘from whence’ is redundant, albeit the more common usage.

On the other hand, most people would not use ‘whence’ at all. It is not obsolete yet; however, it is well on the way to becoming obsolete. Fowler was lamenting the loss of the word back in the twenties, and his own words serve as reinforcement of its pending demise:

We who tend to weep over whence and whither must console ourselves by reflecting that in the less literal or secondary senses the words are still with us for a time; ‘Whither are we tending?’, and ‘Whence comes it that…?’ are as yet safe.

Whither are we tending? That pretty much says it all for me. What does it even mean? I know for sure that I don’t want to be associated with any word that is associated with whither!

Garner considers it ‘an especially formal word which some readers consider stilted.’

Patricia O’Connor notes that ‘from’ is built into its meaning and says:

If you must use a grizzled old word, treat it with respect.

I think that falls under the category of ‘damning with faint praise.’

Most references are silent on the use of ‘whence’ which also speaks volumes, I think.

The reader points out that we still use ‘hence’ so we should use ‘whence.’ I disagree, I am with Fowler who looks at ‘whither’ as the closer kin, and I think I have made my position on ‘whither’ clear.

So, in summary, I think it’s terrific that our reader treats the word with respect and uses it correctly. I think it would be even more terrific if the reader stopped using ‘whence’ at all.

Tip 2: fraught or fraught with

A reader writes:

I don’t believe I ever saw the word ‘fraught’ used without being followed by ‘with’ until about 5 years ago. Now everything is fraught. An example from today’s NYT: ‘reporting on Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, where ethnic tensions run high between Uighurs and Han, is still fraught.’ I learned that something could be fraught with anxiety, tension or some other negative emotion. Is using ‘fraught’ alone an entirely new usage as it seems to me to be?

It’s not entirely new, but is clearly becoming more common.

Fraught’s most common meaning is ‘full of’ or ‘attended by,’ when it is used alongside ‘with.’

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (English poet)

Initially the word had a neutral connotation, and the phrase was defined by whatever ‘fraught’ was imbued with. For example:

Think positively and masterfully, with confidence and faith, and life becomes more secure, more fraught with action, richer in achievement and experience.
Eddie Rickenbacker (American pilot)

Oh eyes, no eyes, but fountains fraught with tears;
O life, no life, but lively form of death;
Oh world, no world, but mass of public wrongs.
Thomas Kyd (English dramatist)

Long before your child sets foot in his dorm, you’ll begin the transition to college-style parent. It’s a transition fraught with misgivings and exuberance, with self-doubt and bursts of confidence, with joyful letting go and tearful hanging on.
Norman Giddan (U.S. psychiatrist)

Over time, it took on a distinctly negative association, which remains to this day.

He’s going to be looking after a program that has been fraught with delay, faulty science, mismanagement and misdirection.
Jack Finn (I have no idea who this person is.)

Finally, the word came to take on a new meaning; we dropped the ‘with’ and imbued fraught with its own definition: filled with anxiety or distress.

I already had a fraught relationship with my parents, who were very traditional. They wanted me to get a proper job, like any right-thinking parents would.
Naveen Andrews (British actor)

Determining the timing of this evolution of the word ‘fraught’ is tricky. William Safire first wrote about it in 2006. Ben Zimmer, who took over Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times notes the use of ‘fraught’ as a standalone word starting in the twenties and an increase in popularity occurring in the sixties.

There is no question that it is popular now. We see it in the newspapers often.

Controversial Clean-up: BP’s fraught quarter.

Opera Companies’ Fraught Seasons
New York Times

The earliest example I found is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.

So is it legitimate? I think so. it certainly doesn’t bother me. Garner reports that its use is becoming more and more common. Zimmer says the same. Its use is fairly straightforward. If something is fraught, it is filled with anxiety or distress. If you want to express something specific, you just add ‘with’ as in ‘fraught with danger,’ ‘fraught with despair’ and so on. It really is a lovely word, and I think we should get as much use out of it as we can.


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