1250–1300; Middle English frai;
aphetic variant of affray
Can be confused
“I joined the fray, and proceeded to fray my clothes.”
What we have here are two completely different words that happen to be spelled (and pronounced) the same way. This is the story of the first fray,
a word for a fight, a competition, or a noisy brawl.
was borrowed into English from an Anglo-French word with the various meanings “to disturb,” “to attack,” and also “to frighten.” The past participle of this same word (affrayed,
meaning “alarmed”) became, in English, afraid.
While nowadays frays
are things that people willingly “enter” or “join” or even “throw themselves into,” early in its history the fear aspect dominated. And so, in the 1300s, one could speak of frayes and dredes
(fears and dreads) and in the 1500s, one might find a fray-boggard
(fear-goblin) in the garden, a frightening specter better known to us as a scarecrow.
“Shall we play the coward, then, and leave the hard knocks for our daughters, or shall we throw ourselves into the fray, bare our own shoulders to the blows, and thus bequeath to them a politically liberated womanhood?“
—Carrie Chapman Catt, The Crisis (delivered September 7, 1916)
“The Portuguese [referees] offered no brotherly love to Pelé by fouling him seven times, eventually forcing his withdrawal from the fray.“
—Tony Mason, Passion of the people?: Football in South America (1995)
“Pedestrians attempted to squeeze by and avoid being pulled into the loud fray between the two draymen.“
—Georgina Flemming, The Light to My Darkness (1992)