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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, April 15, 2011

Don't fret

My choir recently sang a quite lovely motet, "Lord, let me know mine end" by C.H.H. Parry, set to the words of the 39th Psalm. I found this simile, in the translation dating from the 1500s, particularly striking: "When thou with rebukes dost chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment", which got me thinking about the word "fret" (I should probably have been thinking about whether I was singing the right note!) You can hear the whole piece here:

with the "fretting" at 6:06, where Parry very cleverly conveys musically the image of a moth's wings fluttering while it gnaws on the garment.

But what about the word "fret"? Old English had two words for "eat": etan for people and fretan for animals (Modern German still makes this distinction between essen and fressen). We English speakers stopped making the distinction, so that by the 1600s people, animals, birds, worms, and moths were all eating rather than "fretting".

But back in the 1200s we had started using "fret" figuratively, of the "gnawing" or "consuming" effect of what one author called "vexatious passions" (love, anger, etc.) on the mind. "Rage frets her bones," wrote one Renaissance author. One could also "fret oneself" with such feelings, or with worry. From there it was a short step to the current intransitive use, where we fret about something.

The guitarists among you will be wondering about the noun "fret", but this is unrelated, coming from an Old French word meaning "ring".

If you want to hear my choir, you can check out the podcasts here:
where eventually the recent service will turn up. That'll be me singing the wrong note on "fretting"! (Actually I did sing the right note, so do pay attention to the exquisite altos.)


  1. Good post! And as a guitarist I was wondering about fret in the musical sense :-)

  2. Hi,

    I missed this English-German link. I think the s-t "game" between the two languages was not strong enough in me to make me suspect a connection.

    I wish you had explicitly mentioned that "Old French" word for "ring" ... Was it from Latin ? I only know of "annulus".


  3. Hello Katherine. I enjoyed your post, as always, yet felt compelled to mention that clothing moths (pantry moths being a different plague) eat fabric fibres while still in their larval stage, not as fluttering, mature insects—though the image in the song is a lovely one, sung beautifully!
    I am a costume designer and, as such, the fretting of moths directly translates into the fretting of my brow.
    For those interested in beautiful singing, set to a gorgeous score by Alexina Louie of Esprit Orchestra, check out Mulroney: The Opera, this Saturday at Live At The Met.
    Linda Muir

    1. I just found out that "moth" in the 1500s was more likely to designate the larva than the adult, so the psalm itself makes sense, though my interpretation of "moth" was wrong.

  4. Merci for this very interesting musical post and thanks to Linda Muir too!
    Languages and music marry so well, as they are life itself altogether.

  5. Merci, Mafalda! Avez-vous remarque que les gens qui sont doues pour la musique le sont souvent pour les langues aussi?


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.