By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word ‘scared’ can be very useful in writing and speech: its short, monosyllabic structure convey an urgent feeling of fear and can be applied to a wide range of different situations. One can be scared of something: scared of ghosts, scared of the dark, and so on. One can be scared by something, such as a sudden noise in the middle of the night, or by some more general and existential threat: one might talk of being scared of what the future holds, for instance.
As the above paragraph makes clear, scared is such a wide-ranging and useful word that it can become very easy to overuse it. What alternatives are on offer to the writer, then? Below, we introduce some of the best scared synonyms: words which mean much the same thing, albeit with some minor differences between them.
We’ll group together the synonyms, to make it easier to identify what they mean. After we’ve discussed some useful synonyms, we’ll also explore the best antonyms for being scared.
We have the Vikings to thank for the word ‘scared’. It’s ultimately from skirra, an Old Norse term meaning ‘to shrink from’ or ‘to avoid conflict or trouble’. But fear and fright, which are both Germanic in origin, have also provided us with some useful synonyms for scared.
The best-known of these are AFRAID, FRIGHTENED, and FEARFUL. However, AFEARED is a more archaic or old-fashioned way of saying afraid: it may no longer be in common use, but you might encounter it in Shakespeare, for instance.
Being afraid or frightened both convey a general state of fear: this is being scared in a long-term, ongoing way. If you’re afraid of the dark, that isn’t a one-off experience, but a chronic one, effectively.
But there are other ways of feeling scared. Consider the suite of synonyms which we owe to the word terror. This is a different kind of fear: it’s a state of extreme or intense fear, and so a stronger term than scared. Terror is derived from a French word (terreur), denoting such an extreme state. Words that fall into this category include TERRIFIED, TERROR-STRICKEN and TERROR-STRUCK, and TERRORISED – this last one implying that someone is deliberately trying to keep you in a permanent state of terror.
Being INTIMIDATED – in other words, feeling threatened by something and made to feel scared – is a slightly milder version of this feeling. It’s easy to overlook this word’s relationship to timid, but that’s literally its derivation, and what it means: to render somebody timid by overawing them, whether by threatening behaviour or outright violence.
A couple of other words which, whilst not derived from the word terror, convey a similar state of intense fear, are PETRIFIED and HORRIFIED. The former comes from the Greek petros meaning ‘rock’ or ‘stone’: it’s the same derivation as the word petrol and even the boys’ name Peter. To be petrified is to be paralysed with fear: it’s as if you’ve been turned to stone, rooted to the spot with terror.
Curiously, this wasn’t the original meaning of petrified. Initially it referred to the act of literally converting something into stone, and then it actually meant ‘to deprive of feeling’, as though turning something into the unfeeling stuff of stone – almost the opposite meaning to ‘fill something with fear’.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites John Denham in 1667 as the earliest recorded use of the word to mean paralysed with fear: ‘Others, that survey’d the Corps so clear Said he was onely petrifi’d for fear.’
An intense but perhaps short-lived bout of fear can be described using two different synonyms for scared: ALARMED and STARTLED. In both cases, there is an element of shock or nasty surprise to the fear – so, for instance, one might be alarmed by recent unexpected developments or startled by a sudden sound in the darkness when in the house alone at night.
Fear can take many forms. And often it can make us NERVOUS or UNNERVED: both words which suggest that something has scared us so much as to make us ANXIOUS or WORRIED about something. Note: you can be anxious about something, and you can be worried about OR worried by something, but you can’t be anxious by something, because worried is derived from a verb (to worry), whereas anxious is simply an adjective.
Other similar words include both formal and more colloquial or even slang terms, such as SHAKEN, FRANTIC, AGITATED, PANICKY and PANIC-STRICKEN, JUMPY, JITTERY, QUIVERY, COWED, HYSTERICAL, and SPOOKED.
More colloquial phrases which are synonymous with a state of fear or worry are BESIDE ONESELF, SHAKING LIKE A LEAF, ALL A-QUIVER, SCARED WITLESS (or something that rhymes with witless), and ON EDGE.
What’s the opposite of being or feeling scared? Some useful antonyms – words which mean the opposite of ‘scared’ – include CALM, LAID-BACK, UNPERTURBED, UNFAZED, BRAVE, COURAGEOUS, CONFIDENT – and, of course, UNAFRAID.