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Engine House in Cornwall in the mist

Fret – but not to worry

Engine House in Cornwall in the mist

Today we undertook another little linguistic research jaunt as a result of the Cornish weather and its sea mists.

An old friend from Yorkshire, (sadly no longer with us), always used the term sea fret when he was talking about the rather eerie and somewhat depressing sea mist on the north coast of Cornwall.

We assumed it to be a northern term, which indeed seems to be the case, with Oxford dictionaries giving the noun fret’s fourth definition as a Northern English term for a “mist coming in off the sea; a sea fog”, mid-19th century of unknown origin.

There also seems to be a connection with the Scottish term haar, whose definition, again from Oxford dictionaries, is a “cold sea fog on the east coast of England or Scotland”, this time with a late 17th century original use, perhaps from Old Norse hárr ‘hoar, hoary.

Although there are some links with Middle Dutch “hare”, a biting wind or Frisian harig, damp, there are also opinions of Norse/Dansk origins too.

Interestingly the Cornish dialect for the thick sea mists is haag (or hag) – so not that dissimilar to the above.

Both Wikipedia and the concise dictionary of Scottish words and phrases describe haar or sea fret as “a cold sea mist / fog which drifts in along the east coast, occurring between April and September when warm air passes over the cold North Sea, with its origin probably being Low German”.

Another dictionary, (which fails to include the fourth “misty” meaning of the noun fret), does, however, in fret’s meaning of annoyance or worry, link its origin to the German fressen. It states it was used of monsters and Vikings and also in Middle English in connection with animals eating.

Its figurative use stems from c.1200 of emotions, vices etc., to “worry, consume, vex” someone’s heart or mind by either the “eating” or “rubbing” sense. The intransitive sense “be worried, vex oneself” dates from 1550s and, of course, modern German still distinguishes the human act of essen (eating) whereas animals still fressen.

So… just maybe, if haar and sea fret mean the same weather phenomenon, then could there be a German connection with each – that fine mist covering the skin like facial hair (haar) and the fret devouring/eating everything it envelops like a monster or animal eating?