Fractious: A Word Orphaned By Its Root Word

The etymology of a word often reveals something unique about its origins — confusion with other words, evolution of its definition over time, or even a lack of consensus about how the word come to fruition. However, a study of the word fractious reveals something rather peculiar about its root word, fraction.

Fractious is defined as “tending to be troublesome” or “quarrelsome, irritable”. Think: a fractious group or a fractious rally.

The word was first recorded in 1714 and was derived from fraction, but not the definition that we know today. The modern definition of fraction is more commonly used in mathematics or to describe fragmentation. “A piece broken off”, “a discrete unit”, or “a numerical representation indicating the quotient of two numbers” are the meanings we’ve come to accept over time. However, as far back as the early 1500s, fraction meant “discord”, “disharmony”, and even “a brawl”. Thus, fractious seemed like a natural conjugation of the word.

However, the meaning of fraction shifted over several centuries. Fraction stems from the Latin word frangere, which means “to break (something) in pieces, shatter, fracture” — a definition that aligns more closely with modern use. There was no defining moment when the switch happened, but eventually, fraction’s definition morphed into something more akin to its Latin predecessor.

A sampling of recent headlines indicates our modern understanding of fraction is likely its permanent definition. “Michelle Williams is getting a fraction of Mark Wahlberg’s $2 million payday in ‘All the Money in the World’ reshoots,” reads a November 28 story from The Washington Post. reports, “Businesses in Oxford Street Set to Save Only A Fraction on Rates Bill After Modifications to Indexation”. Even local news keeps the word front and center. “Portland Officials: Only A Fraction Of Short-Term Rental Units Meeting Registration Requirement” reads a Dec. 4 story from Maine Public.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about the relationship between fractious and fraction is that fractious is now, essentially, an orphan. Its spelling makes it a clear relative of fraction. But their meanings are no longer the same, making their connection somewhat superficial.

One word fractious seems to have more in common with is factious. Both in spelling and definition, they are quite similar. Factious means “characterized by, inclined to form, or promoting factions”, or in simpler terms, “producing partisanship or division”. But alas, a subtle difference exists between the two words. “A fractious child is a disobedient one; a factious child is one who causes dissension in a group,” reads The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style.

Fractious is typically used to describe groups while factious often refers to individuals. However, confusion still abounds but it isn’t necessarily an offensive language faux pas. “Those two words are pretty similar, so if you confused them, it wouldn’t really be the end of the world. A factious group could easily become fractious,” writes Jen Dziura for Manhattan Prep, an official exam preparation site for the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, ACT, and TOEFL.

Fractious is the rare word that was orphaned by its root word, and upon further exploration, reveals yet another compelling story of a word whose definition has changed over time.