Ever encountered something unnatural or out of the ordinary? Well you may just have witnessed a freak show! Let our resident language freak, Tim Bowen, freak you out with this Word of the week!
The word freak is said to derive from a Middle English adjective meaning ‘quick’. Its current use, both as a noun and an adjective, appears to have little or no connection with its origins. The underlying meaning of freak in modern use generally relates to ‘out of the ordinary’ or even ‘unnatural’, as in ‘He was regarded as a freak at school because he took no interest in sport’. In this sense freak was also used negatively and impolitely to refer to people with physical deformities, people who appeared in freak shows at circuses or funfairs, for example.
The idea of something out of the ordinary also applies to the adjectival use of freak as in ‘a freak snowstorm in the middle of July’ or ‘she was injured in a freak accident when her dog chewed through the electric cable’.
A relatively new use of freak is to refer to someone who is obsessively interested in a particular subject or activity, as in ‘She’s a fitness freak’ or ‘Alan’s a bit of a health freak’. The verb to freak (often freak out), meaning to be so angry, surprised, excited or frightened that you cannot control yourself, is also a fairly recent, and probably unrelated, use: ‘I just freaked when I saw the police coming’. All in all, quite a freaky (strange and possibly a little frightening) word.