• To restrain, especially with shackles around the feet but also in general


  • A chain or leash attached to the ankles or feet as a restraint

  • Something that limits or restrains


When you're trying to have a conversation, do you ever feel like your vocabulary is holding you back? What about when you're playing Words With Friends - do you sometimes find yourself inhibited by an inability to come up with the perfect word, keeping you chained to word-game mediocrity? Okay, maybe it's not that drastic, but consider that holes in your vocabulary really can fetter your attempts to take advantage of language. Whether you're trying to make points in an intense discussion or just rack them up in your next game, breaking your linguistic fetters is as simple as experiencing a few new words.

As a noun, fetter originally (when it was first introduced sometime before the 12th century) referred to a chain, manacle, or other cuff that was physically attached to confine someone's motion. Traditionally, fetters were made of metal and wrapped around the lower leg or foot as a form of imprisonment - think of prisoners in movies and books who are bound with heavy manacles on the ankles (and sometimes wrists). If you think this sounds pretty horrible, you probably understand how "cruel and unusual" that type of bondage is considered by many countries today. What makes fetters so awful is the way they unnaturally and inordinately confine a person, preventing prisoners' escape by restricting their abilities to move and stretch.

The idea of a fetter as unjustly or frustratingly restrictive carries over into the noun's metaphorical (and more common) usage as well. Nowadays, the meaning of fetter can include anything that holds you back or limits your freedom. This might be a physical restraint, like a heavy backpack that weighs a student down as he walks home from school, or something less tangible, like a fear or a negative self-image. In many cases, these types of fetters don't limit actual movement but instead keep people from reaching their potentials or inhibit their intellectual or social activities. Not having access to a computer, for example, can be a fetter against searching for a job or looking up a word in an online lexicon.

We don't want you to feel confined to just using the word as a noun, though; fetter works equally well as a verb that refers to the act of somehow limiting someone's freedom. This use is particularly apt when someone's feet or ankles are shackled, but the verb is more commonly applied figuratively to describe any confining or hindering action. Fetter in this way suggests that someone is being unfairly or dramatically impeded. It's a great word to use in literary or romantic situations, as today it often implies that someone is being constrained in their thoughts and endeavors, especially those pertaining to goals and desires. A recent graduate's student debt, for instance, might fetter her ability to travel for a little while.

When using fetter figuratively as either a noun or a verb, it's important to consider that the word doesn't necessarily imply total restriction. A fetter can keep someone completely paralyzed, but you can also just fetter a person from doing one or two specific things or from doing something well or to a full degree. Fetter always refers to a limit or to the act of limiting, but, ironically, it doesn't restrict its users to a certain amount or severity.

Example: The prisoner's ball and chain was an effective fetter preventing his escape.

Example: My fear of heights was the only fetter keeping me from climbing to the top of the lighthouse.

Example: A nagging hamstring injury would fetter the point guard's play all season.

Example: To avoid strange looks, the lexicographer had to fetter his urges to use obscure words in everyday conversations.


Logophiles may have already guessed that there's an etymological connection between fetter and feet. After all, the words look and sound similar, and fetter is even based on the idea of a shackle connecting the feet. One of the oldest ancestors of both words is the Proto-Indo-European root ped-, meaning "foot" (and still seen in common English words like pedestrian and pedal). Ped- would inspire many different foot-related words in several different languages, including the Old English terms fōt (for "foot") and fetor (which literally meant "a shackle binding the ankles" or, figuratively, "a limitation or inhibitor"). The latter is likely the most direct ancestor of the modern fetter, providing the basis for both its literal and metaphorical meanings. Fetter has been in use in English as a noun since at least the twelfth century; its verb meaning arose about 200 years later.

Derivative Words

Fetters: This simple present form of fetter is used when a singular, third-person subject physically chains someone's feet or holds someone back.

Example: The poorly placed extension cord fetters the ankles of everyone who walks by.

Example: Writer's block fetters the lexicographer's imagination, preventing him from coming up with interesting examples.

Example: Loud music from the room next door fetters our ability to concentrate.

Fettered: As the preterit of fetter, fettered can be used whenever someone has chained another's ankles or restrained something in the past. As the past participle of fetter, fettered can also act as an adjective to characterize something as chained up or inhibited in some way.

Example: Some prankster fettered me by tying my shoes together!

Example: A sudden downpour fettered us on the highway, keeping us from driving too fast.

Example: John's dream of going deep sea fishing was somewhat fettered by the fact that he lived in Iowa.

Fettering: This present progressive form of fetter can be used when someone is currently chaining someone's ankles or in any way confining something.

Example: The manacles fettering the ghost's lower legs rattled when he walked, which of course was exactly what he wanted.

Example: I have enough to worry about without that stupid ghost fettering my attempts to fall asleep.

Example: The ghost claimed that unfinished business was fettering him to the world of the living, but I think he just liked pulling pranks on me.

Unfetter: Need a way to say you unchained someone? Look no further than the verb unfetter, which can also describe the act of freeing someone or of lifting restrictions. It is conjugated as Unfetters, Unfettered, and Unfettering.

Example: The jailer came to unfetter the exonerated prisoner.

Example: Many parents find that their kids' leaving for college unfetters their free time.

Example: The kids streamed out of school, the summer having finally unfettered them.

Example: Josh appreciated his therapist for unfettering his mind from worries.

Enfetter: Interestingly, although fetter can be used as a verb, English also recognizes the verb enfetter, which means "to place in chains" (i.e. fetters). Enfetter can also be used figuratively to describe the act of limiting or inhibiting someone from doing something. Enfetter is conjugated as Enfetters, Enfettered, and Enfettering.

Example: The motivational speaker claims that a negative self-image can enfetter our productivity.

Example: Julia found herself drawn in to the speaker's lecture, her attention enfettered by his radiant charisma.

Example: Bad credit enfetters many would-be home buyers.

Example: The chain gang was kept together by the shackles enfettering their ankles.

In Literature

From Virginia Woolf's The Second Common Reader:

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.

In this passage, Woolf uses the verb fetter figuratively, saying that the suggestions given by her (or anyone else) should in no way restrict readers' liberties to interpret writing in any way they will.

From Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment:

But it was not his shaven head and his fetters he was ashamed of: his pride had been stung to the quick. It was wounded pride that made him ill. Oh, how happy he would have been if he could have blamed himself! He could have borne anything then, even shame and disgrace. But he judged himself severely, and his exasperated conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone. He was ashamed just because he, Raskolnikov, had so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind fate, and must humble himself and submit to "the idiocy" of a sentence, if he were anyhow to be at peace.

In this passage, the prisoner Raskolnikov feels that the unfairness and absurdity of his sentence is worse than the actual chains, or fetters, around his ankles.


Buddhists often use the term mental fetter to refer to those materialistic desires and behaviors that keep a person from attaining nirvana. Although the specifics vary between different disciplines, most of these fetters involve things like anger, lust, and egotism.


  • Fetters fix the feet together

  • Fetters keep you from doing better


Chains, Prison, Limits, Prisoner

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of fetter. Did you use fetter in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.