“Vocal fry” has re-emerged in conversation due to its use by several pop culture icons—most notably, Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears. While the term may seem new to a lot of people, vocal fry is not a new phenomenon (and it’s definitely not *only* famous women who are using it).
Google Ngrams, which tracks the popularity of words and phrases in books throughout time, shows that the term “vocal fry” actually peaked back in the 1980s. During this era, a variety of voice and communication disorder books were defining and discussing this now-infamous vocal register.
What Is Vocal Fry?
In her 1975 book Improving Voice and Articulation, Hilda B. Fisher described vocal fry as “a sound in the voice thought to resemble the noise made by hot fat.” It’s “crackling, ticker-like, and like the sound of rapidly popping corn.”
Vocal fry is the lowest register of your voice. When you speak this low, it sounds breathy and creaky, like a frog’s ribbit or a dog’s growl. Many people commonly drop their voice into vocal fry at the end of their sentences, and others may speak regularly using the vocal fry register.
Here’s how it happens: Your vocal cords vibrate together to produce sound. Quick vibrations produce stronger voices, and slow vibrations create lower, more croaky voices, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. To make vocal fry, you have to relax your vocal cords, and the relaxed cords make that classic, croaky sound.
Is Vocal Fry Bad for Your Voice?
You know misusing your voice can be bad for your vocal cords. “Belting” your favorite songs with poor singing technique, for example, can cause vocal cord injuries, such as the growth of polyps (like a blister) on the vocal folds, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
So is vocal fry considered a misuse of the vocal cords? Based on what researchers currently know, that answer is “no.” No evidence currently suggests that using vocal fry affects throat health or causes vocal cord damage, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Primary vocal cord irritants include smoking, dry throat, and frequent yelling.
Vocal fry may take a toll on something else, however; this low register is heavily stigmatized, especially among women. Many people complain that vocal fry sounds irritating, or that people who use vocal fry come across as bored, apathetic, or even lazy (yikes).
Since vocal fry comes off as casual and laid back, it might be inappropriate if it slips into, say, your work presentation. In fact, a 2014 study found that people perceived women using vocal fry as less educated, less competent, and less trustworthy compared to when they used their normal voices. This negative perception affected men using vocal fry as well, but to a lesser extent.
If you fear your habit of vocal fry is giving off the wrong impression, you can work with a speech-language pathologist to practice producing a stronger and more commanding voice. Either way, you can rest easy knowing that vocal fry won’t fry your vocal cords.