Yesterday I went to the gym and did a strenuous workout. On the way out I ran into a young fellow there (somewhere in his early twenties) who I had talked to on and off for the last several years. He asked me how my workout was and I told him I was worn to a frazzle. He then said “Worn to a frazzle? What’s that?” Evidently, he was not familiar with the expression. I was really surprised and then tried to explain what a frazzle was. I really wasn’t sure if there was an actual physical object or thing of that name, perhaps some kind of cinder, left over after some sort of burning process. So I said that it was just some worn out thing which was left over after a long and/or hard period of use.
What I really wondered was, was this was an expression that had fallen out of use, got demoted over the years and was considered, in general, to be ‘outdated,’ out- moded ,’‘old-fashioned,’ ‘antiquated, or whatever you want to call it, or was this young fellow’s unfamiliarity with it just an anomaly? To start, I looked up the noun ‘frazzle.’
1) The state of being frazzled or worn out [see verb]
2a) A frayed or tattered end or edge; a remnant; shred
b) A condition of fatigue or nervous exhaustion suggesting such an end or edge <worn to a frazzle>
Etymology: From the verb (see below).
frazzle verb (used with or without an object)
1) To wear to thread or shreds; fray <a bedside lamp with a frazzled cord and torn shade>
2a) To reduce to a state of extreme physical or nervous fatigue; to weary or tire out <as if all of these projects weren't enough to frazzle him> <finally arrived … frazzled and miserable.]> <Those six-year-olds frazzled me.>
b) To disturb greatly; upset <He has probably helped to open as many curious minds as he has helped to frazzle unstable ones.>
To become frazzled; fray, wear <A thin ribbon of gray smoke … frazzled into nothingness> <guaranteed not to rip in the seams or frazzle at the sleeves>
1) Alteration (probably influenced by fray of English dialect fazle to tangle, fray, from Middle English faselen to fray, from frasel, noun, fringe, frayed edge, diminutive of fas fringe, from Old English fæs.
2) 1815–25; A blend of ‘fray’ and ‘fazzle,’ [Note: I could not find ‘fazzle’ as being a word existing in the English language!], Middle English faselin to unravel, cognate with German fasein]). First Known Use: circa 1825 (transitive sense 1)
(Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, Dictionary.com)
The idiom worn to a frazzle
1) In a state of nervous exhaustion, as in The very idea of moving again has us worn to a frazzle. This expression transfers frazzle, which means “a frayed edge,” to one's feelings. [Late 1800s]
2) Physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted. <I'm just worn to a frazzle after a week with my relatives. I'm so glad that they're leaving tomorrow!> <Looking after the kids on my own all weekend left me worn to a frazzle.> <We all felt worn to a frazzle by the end of the three-day seminar.>
Well I can’t go out and take a comprehensive survey to find out if worn to a frazzle is becoming or is outmoded, but I can check out a newspaper archive to see how it’s fared there over the years and I guess that might give some indication of its status:
1952-1972: 4,802 hits
1998-2018: 690 hits
That’s a drop of 86% over the two 20-year periods.
1998-2008: 614 hits
2008-2018: 85 hits
That’s also an 86% drop over the two recent 10-year periods.
That’s pretty much holding steady at a pretty puny number over the two recent 5-year periods. (Also see my note after the quotes below)
These numbers indicate a steep decline in the appearance of the idiom over the last 66 years, at least in newspapers, and may suggest that the use of the expression has been petering out in general. Whether one wants to call it an “outdated expression” (outmoded, old-fashioned, antiquated) might be a matter of opinion, but I would say it is definitely headed in that direction.
The following are some newspaper quotes from over the years:
Note: In 1998 I had 186 hits. In 2018 I had 2 hits. In 2019 I had none!<1952 “Bert Bell, commissioner of the National Football League who has worn himself to a frazzle these last few years working out a playing schedule, told The Tribune yesterday . . . that he will ask the 12 owners to take over this chore . . .”—Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 15 January, page 34>
<1969 “There are so many other requests for intangible things I would like to put in the hands of Santa. For example, death by firing squad for anyone who uses the word confrontation which has been worn to a frazzle lately.”–Los Angeles Times (Los Angles, California), 14 December, page 500>
<1982 “If you wear sizes 16 to 26 – don’t get worn to a frazzle searching for fashions – you’ll find attractive smart young-looking styles at all the ‘Something Special’ Boutiques.”—The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 14 December, page 21>
<1998 “Andrea Engber was more angry than hurt, She had worn herself to a frazzle and spent plenty showing her son the Seattle sights he had begged to see.”—The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 October, page 256>
<2011 “‘I’ve seen him game nights where it’s (the end of a) long week and he’s here in the morning … It’s 9:30 at night and there’s a basketball game, Heaps said. ‘You can tell he’s worn to a frazzle and in pain. You know, you can go home, but I’ve never known him to.’”—The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), 4 February, page 11>
<2018 “We pulled off under a highway overpass . . . a young, tall, blond man driving a black Jeep pulled over and ran through the rain to ask if he could help us, He was a godsend. We were soaked to the bone and worn to a frazzle: he directed us to a Best Western in Kirkwood.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St.Louis, Missouri), 2 July, page A11>
Ken Greenwald – April 9, 2019