October 10, 2013

Case File #013.10.10: FREAK

Now, don't freak out over this, but when the noun freak first appeared in the English lexicon circa 1563, it meant “a capricious notion or a sudden change of mind.” And not only that, but etymologists are freakishly divided over the word's possible antecedents: some believe it descended from the Old English verb frician, which meant “to dance”; some claim it evolved from the Middle English noun frekynge (sometimes spelled freking), which meant “impulsive or erratic behavior”; some think it grew out of the Middle English adjective frek, which meant “eager, bold, or zealous” but was also sometimes used to mean “fast or speedy”; and still others argue that it came from something else altogether. But whatever the case, by 1785, freak had come to mean “an eccentric desire or whim,” and by the mid-nineteenth century, it had acquired its now familiar and primary senses of “a thing or occurrence that is notably unusual or irregular” and “a person, animal, or plant that is physically abnormal or grossly malformed.” The sense in which the noun refers to an ardent enthusiast—as in, for example, nature freak or sports freak—dates to around 1910, and the informal senses of “illicit drug user,” “member of the counterculture,” and “sexual deviate” are even newer, all having first appeared around the late 1950s. The common but informal contemporary verb sense of freak, which is often followed by out and means “to act or cause to act in a distressed, irrational, or uncontrollable way,” is also relatively new and first came into wide use during the 1960s, yet the less common verb senses of “to fleck or streak randomly” and “to alter or distort” date back to the early seventeenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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