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In his play Measure for Measure Shakespeare makes mention of a garden surrounded by a brick wall. By his time the word brick had been part of the English language for almost 200 years.
It seems to have been brought to England by Flemish construction workers in the 1400s who worked with a newfangled building material that English speakers didn’t have a name for.
By the time of Samuel Johnson the word brick was so familiar that he used it without thinking in relating an opinion about Shakespeare.
Johnson said that anyone who tried to explain Shakespeare “by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.”
If you’ve been following podictionary you’ll know that this sent me off in search of whatever Hierocles was.
Hieroclese was a Greek scholar who lived in Alexandria about 1500 years ago and who many people—including Samuel Johnson—credited as being half of the comedy duo Hierocles and Philagrius.
Modern scholars aren’t really sure if the joke book attributed to these two actually had anything to do with them but there is indeed an old joke book from which Samuel Johnson pulled that old chestnut; although in the edition I saw it was a stone not a brick that the homeowner had in his pocket.
Just to show that (other than bricks) there isn’t really anything new under the sun I came across articles on the web that point to Hierocles and Philagrius as being the originators of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch.
- Customer: “The slave you sold me died.”
- Merchant: “By the gods, he never did such a thing when he was with me.”
Compared to that, bricks are relatively new.
Etymologically some sources at least believe that the word brick is related to the word break and that originally bricks were not whole units but broken pieces.
Perhaps more speculatively, the theory goes that it was bakers who broke up their dough to bake loaves who used a similar word for these broken-off portions, and that this word found itself being applied to the material that was baked into bricks.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.