1 [frey]
a fight, battle, or skirmish. altercation, combat, war, clash, encounter, set-to.
a competition or contest, especially in sports. tournament, match, meet, tourney.
a noisy quarrel or brawl. fight, dispute, tiff, spat, squabble; riot, fracas, tussle, rumpus.
Archaic. fright.
verb (used with object)
Archaic. to frighten.
verb (used without object)
Archaic. to fight or brawl.

1250–1300; Middle English frai; aphetic variant of affray

frays, phrase.

“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.
This fray 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) Unabridged


2 [frey]
verb (used with object)
to wear (cloth, rope, etc.) to loose, raveled threads or fibers at the edge or end; cause to ravel out: Our old washing machine frayed all of our towels. ravel, tatter, wear out, become threadbare.
to wear by rubbing (sometimes followed by through ).
to cause strain on (something); upset; discompose: All that arguing is fraying my nerves. irritate, stress, chafe, grate on.
to rub.
verb (used without object)
to wear into loose, raveled threads or fibers, as cloth; ravel out: My sweater frayed at the elbows.
to become strained or stressed: Jealousy could be a sign that your relationship is fraying.
to rub against something: tall grass fraying against my knees.
a raveled or worn part, as in cloth: frays at the toes of well-worn sneakers.

1375–1425; late Middle English fraien < Old French frayer, freiier to rub < Latin fricāre. See friction

frayed, adjective

This is the story of the second fray, a word that means to cause deterioriation or wear on something, usually material, by rubbing it. Metaphorically, this can apply to less tangible things, such as our nerves or our tempers.
This fray is closely related to the word friction, as both have as a common ancestor the Latin fricāre, meaning “to rub.” It makes sense—given enough friction, things will begin to fray. But language isn’t always so neat. One early sense of fray that existed in the 1400s, but which has since fallen out of use, meant “to bruise” (as in, with our strokes we shall fray him). In a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses dating from the 1500s, this very same sense in a different context is used to mean “deflower” (deprive of virginity). Can we connect the dots from rub to bruise to deflower? Therein lies the rub.

“[O]nce more he set to work on the laborious task of fraying through his ropes.“
—John Russell Fearn and Philip Harbottle, Liquid Death and Other Stories (2002)
“The heat and hunger frayed men's tempers.“
—Colin Falconer, When We Were Gods: A Novel of Cleopatra (2000)
“Tempers fray and arguments flare as motorists exchange expletives over the last parking space.“
—Andrew Holmes and Dan Wilson, Pains in Public: 50 People Most Likely to Drive You Completely Nuts! (2004) Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
fray1 (freɪ)
1.  a noisy quarrel
2.  a fight or brawl
3.  an archaic word for fright
4.  (tr) to frighten
[C14: short for affray]

fray2 (freɪ)
1.  to wear or cause to wear away into tatters or loose threads, esp at an edge or end
2.  to make or become strained or irritated
3.  to rub or chafe (another object) or (of two objects) to rub against one another
4.  a frayed place, as in cloth
[C14: from French frayer to rub, from Latin fricāre; see friction, friable]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

mid-14c., "feeling of alarm," shortening of affray (q.v.; see also afraid). Meaning "a brawl, a fight" is from early 15c.

"wear out by rubbing," c.1400, from M.Fr. frayer, from O.Fr. freier, from L. fricare "to rub." Related: Frayed; fraying.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Example sentences
Carter's singing is frayed and badly out of condition.
Fishermen have no boats, only frayed nets cast from shore.
Grounding protects you if one of the live wires ever becomes frayed and makes
  contact with the metal box.
One lone rope was found trailing in the water, not hooked up to any rigging,
  with the ends frayed.
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