By Dr Oliver Tearle
To ‘worry’ has two chief meanings as a verb, and it is these two meanings that this post is concerned with. The first meaning, in which ‘worry’ is used as an intransitive verb, concerns worrying about or worrying over something. The second meaning, which we will also provide synonyms and antonyms for, sees ‘worry’ used as a transitive verb, as in to worry someone.
Synonyms for the word ‘worry’
Let’s begin by considering some synonyms for the first sense of ‘worry’: to worry about something or someone.
As a verb, FRET originally referred to the action of gnawing away at something or corroding it, so it’s easy to see how it came to have its more modern, figurative use: to worry or become anxious over something.
AGONISE is another synonym for ‘worry’ which started out with a different meaning. It originally referred to contending in a sporting area, but it quickly adopted a figurative sense, coming to mean ‘wrestling’ or ‘struggling’ with something. We often talk of agonising over something, especially a difficult decision that’s a struggle to make a call on.
As a synonym for ‘worry’, BROOD is another example of a concrete term becoming abstract and figurative. Originally denoting a large family (especially of hatched animals, such as birds), it was converted into a verb, meaning to sit on eggs and incubate them until they hatch.
Now let’s consider the second sense of worry: when it’s uses as a transitive verb, i.e., to worry someone, such as with one’s behaviour etc.
Let’s begin, as we did above with sense 1, with FRET, since that verb can also be transitive as well as intransitive: in other words, just as you can fret about something, so somebody can fret or irritate you with their actions. NAG is also related to the idea of gnawing away at something, because nagging suggests a repeated and long-term act.
TROUBLE started out with a more concrete meaning, referring to the disturbing or agitating of water or air – such as when one ruffles the surface of water. Indeed, the word trouble is etymologically related to the adjective turbid, which refers to thick, muddy, or cloudy water (such as when it’s been disturbed). Even in the Middle Ages, it was being used to mean ‘put into a state of mental agitation’, or to DISTRESS or PERPLEX.
The first of these two, distress, means literally to put someone or something under severe stress or pressure, as the word implies. It’s been used as a synonym for worry, or to make someone vexed or miserable, since at least the sixteenth century.
As for perplex, this is from the Latin meaning ‘involved’, ‘interwoven’, or confused and intricate; compare with the similar word complex. As a verb, to perplex someone is to cause someone to worry about something, or to cause them to be puzzled or troubled. Usually, it involves some kind of confusion or uncertainty, which is the cause of the worry.
This idea of being involved or entangled is also there in the etymology of PESTER, from a French word meaning to impede or entangle. It’s also used to refer to the act of bothering, troubling, or worrying someone, especially repeatedly (as in ‘pestering someone for an answer’).
Of course, if you’re worried you might also be described as concerned, and CONCERN is from the French simply meaning ‘to refer or relate to’ something. The word is still used in English in this sense, as in ‘to whom it may concern’. In that phrase, concern is far more neutral, but if someone is concerned about something, they’re worried about it. The OED cites Christopher Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta, from the early 1590s, as the first instance of this sense of ‘concern’: ‘Now, then, here know that it concerneth us.’
TORMENT was originally applied to actual torture, but has come to be used in a wider sense, relating to some sort of mental torture or anguish, such as when you’re greatly agitated or worried about something.
Or you might say you’re grieved by something, and GRIEVE, ever since the Middle Ages, has been used as a synonym for worry, trouble, or vex, as in ‘something grieves me’. It’s from the same root as grief, unsurprisingly, and both are ultimately derived from the Latin gravis meaning ‘heavy’, whence we also get gravity. And talking of VEX, that’s been around since the Middle Ages too, and refers to bothering, harassing, or troubling someone.
The verb to BUG, as in to annoy, irritate, or pester someone, is derived from the word bug for an insect, probably because being infested with insects was quite annoying and troubling. This sense of bug originated in North America. (The OED cites a 1947 letter from On the Road author Jack Kerouac as the first instance of this verb.)
Such an act of constant pestering is also implied in the verb to BADGER, which has less to do with the animal and more to do with itinerant traders, hawkers, and hucksters, who would haggle with people and try to drive a hard bargain – hence the idea of badgering someone insistently over something.
That concludes our list of the commoner synonyms for ‘worry’. What about some rare worry-related words which are due a revival?
WINTERCEARIG, ‘winter care’, is an Old English word describing sorrow or sadness brought on by wintry weather.
And there are a few sleep-related worry words, too: FORWALLOWED, a 15th-century word meaning ‘wearied from tossing and turning all night in bed’; UHTCEARE, the word for ‘lying awake before dawn worrying’, from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’, and DRETCH, to be troubled in sleep.
Antonyms for the word ‘worry’
There are few single-word antonyms for ‘worry’: words which could be described as clean opposites of the word worry as it is defined above. However, if you’re free from worry, you might be described as CALM, UNTROUBLED, or even simply UNWORRIED.
Meanwhile, someone who does the opposite of worrying or troubling you might be said to have APPEASED, MOLLIFIED, or ALLEVIATED you – or alleviated your worries.