the emotions, part ii (afraid/surprised & angry/disgusted)

Fast Mash

  • From the French-based affrayafraid likely comes from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and the Germanic frithu (peace), constructing fear as a “breach of peace”
  • Surprise is Latin-by-way-of-French: French surprendre joins super (over) and prendere (take, seize), rooting the word in a notion of a “sudden attack”
  • Through Old Norse, anger comes from the Proto-Indo-European *angh- (choke, squeeze); anguish, anxiety, and angst are related
  • Via French, disgust joins dis- (opposite) and gustare (to taste), from the Proto-Indo-European *geus– (taste, choose). This same root indeed gave English choose

Earlier, we looked at how happy got lucky and how sad got its fill. But what’s the story of the remaining core emotions: afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted?



I think it comes as little surprise, really, that scientists root surprise in fear. I’ve witnessed some well-intended surprise parties induce panic-paced pulses. The word afraid, however, is not rooted in fear, for as much as “afeared” has been considered a corruption of “afraid.” No, at the root of afraid is…free.

Afraid is the past participle (think broken in, say, broken bone) of afray or affrayfrom the French esfreer (worry, concern, trouble, disturb). This French verb, in turn, is said to come from the Vulgar Latin exfridare, joing ex- (out of) and Frankish frithu (peace). (Frankish is a West Germanic language). The sense is, as Weekley puts it, “a breach of the peace.” Skeat goes feudal with “the king’s peace.”

Free is cognate to frithu, at the root of which is the Proto-Indo-European *pri, “to be friendly” and “to love.” That rejiggers your reckoning of freedom, don’t it? Fray, as in “in the fray,” is an aphetic form of “affray.” In aphesis, an initial, unstressed voweled gets lost.

The Online Etymology makes an interesting observation about afraid: It is a “rare case of an English adjective that never stands before a noun.” Meaning, we would not say “the afraid boy,” but rather, “the boy is afraid.” There is a handful of so-called predicative-only adjectives in English: ablaze, abreast, afire, afloat, aghast, aglow, agog, ajar, alert, alike, alive, alone, aloof, ashamed, asleep, awake, aware, fond, and unaware. What’s interesting is that many of these begin with a-, but what’s more interesting is that these a-‘s have different origins: The ain afraid has come down from a Latin prefix, ex-, while the a- in aloof is an Old English form, meaning “on.” Anyways, this topic deserves its own discussion.


Surprised also snuck into English from French: the Old French surprendre, “overtake” or “seize,” joing sur- (over; from Latin super) and prendre (to take; from Latin prehendere [to take hold of]). In the 15th century, a surprise was a military term, a “sudden attack” or “capture,” while its emotional sense emerges in the 17th century.

And, in 1858, a “surprise party,” according to Richard Thornton’s American Glossary, was:

Sometimes called a donation party. A gathering of the members of a congregation at the house of their preacher, with the ostensible purpose of contributing provisions, &c., for his support.



Remember this riddle? This web comic kxcd pretty much sums it up:

“Word that End in Gry.” Courtesy of xkcd:

Angry is from the Old Norse, angra, meaning “to grieve” and “vex” (ODEE), originating in the Proto-Indo-European *angh-, “to squeeze,” “narrow,” and “painful.” Here, we see a sense of how choking and constricting raises the blood pressure–perhaps literally. Cognates include the Latinate anguish, the Greek anxiety, the Germanic angst, and, the true bane of all existence, the Old English hangnail.

While hangnail looks like it blends hang and nail, it’s probably from the still extant agnail, “a corn on the foot” (ODEE). It blends instead a form of *angh- and nægl (nail, “hard excrescence of the flesh,” as the ODEE put its). Just as /h/ can fall off words, so it  can jump aboard.

Lest the puzzle pester you like a hangnail, English also has aggryanhungry, gry, iggry, mawgry, and puggry. They’re obscure, archaic, and more-clever-than-though-rage-inducing.


The French, arbiters of “taste”: From desgouster (have a distaste for), disgusted features the Latin prefix dis- (opposite of) and gustare (to taste). This verb should leave a Proto-Indo-European aftertaste, for at its root is *geus-, “to try” or “to taste.” Latin and Greek pursued the latter meanings, while, down the Germanic line, this *geus– eventually put choose on the English menu. Some systematic sound changes were certainly in play. 

When Emotions Get Physical

I am taken by how bodily the origins of these basic emotions are–sadness weighs us down, anger chokes us, surprise takes a hold of us, our taste buds are decision-makers. Happiness, too, points back to what fits us. And freedom suggests getting along–friendship, affection, love between people, between bodies. OK, that’s one’s a stretch, but the point stands, as we have seen here before on the Mashed Radish. At root, our experience of the world–our experience of ourselves in the world and the way we have come to talk about it through language–is fundamentally embodied and metaphorical.

m ∫ r ∫


4 thoughts on “the emotions, part ii (afraid/surprised & angry/disgusted)

  1. It’s rather fun putting your predicative-only adjectives in front of rhyming nouns:

    The Ablaze Maze, The Afloat Boat, The Aglow Beau, Alive Clive …

    They sound like story names. Or pubs. Or really naff nightclubs. They definitely sound like something.


  2. Yes, I definitely want have a pint at the Aloof Roof! You may just have started predicative-only adjectively rhyming slang. A limited slang, but a proud one.


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