What is the difference between Thrall and Enthrall?

While we were watching the news the other day, we heard the phrase “in thrall.” My husband thought the word was being misused, having never heard of the word thrall used without its common prefix. So that’s how this Word Wednesday came about. We’ll look at the difference between thrall and enthrall.


People have used thrall with its current definition since the 12th century. The word came to us from Old Norse by way of Middle English. The word likely originates from an Old High German word for “servant.”


The meaning of thrall caught me a bit by surprise. I thought it had a meaning tied to magic, since enthrall can mean “to charm.” The word origins offer a much bigger clue.

the difference between thrall and enthrall

Thrall has three common definitions:

  1. someone morally or mentally enslaved by a power or an influence
  2. someone held in a state of bondage or slavery
  3. slavery

No magic here for sure. Thrall clearly does not have a positive connotation, unlike enthrall sometimes can. The nicest definition I read referred to “a state of complete absorption,” which is still not a positive thing. One could liken thrall to mania, one of the ancient words describing love.

Enthrall turned out not to be quite as innocuous as I thought either.

  1. to hold spellbound, to captivate or charm
  2. to hold in or reduce to slavery

While I always enjoy learning new words, finding out that these two meant something entirely different–and much more negative–than I thought was a real eye-opener.

Have you ever used the word thrall before?

Learning new words and being able to find the word that means exactly what the story needs can mean the difference between a mediocre story and a brilliant one.

For Word Wednesdays, we will identify an unusual word, provide its definition, and discuss its application or its impact.

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