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Brief – Podictionary Word of the Day

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Although he lived more than 2000 years ago Horace seems to capture my dilemma with communicating in the internet age.

He said brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio, which means “I strive to be brief, and I become obscure.”

The balance is increasingly difficult to achieve don’t you think?

Twitter limits your message to 140 characters. A recipe for obscurity you’d think, but no, it’s wildly successful.

Long emails don’t get read, they get skimmed. If you take the time to lay out your message in full it risks not being read at all.

Thus Shakespeare’s “brevity is the soul of wit.” You have to think carefully about how to make your point and keep it short.

The word brief first appeared in English with a meaning of “a letter of authority” around 700 years ago from French.

That’s at least what the written evidence shows.

This meaning would have evolved out of the shortness of a letter or note compared with some longer legal document and have come from the Latin brevis meaning “short” which in turn likely related to a Greek word brachys with the same sense.

But the influence of the Romans plus their use of written instructions meant that the Latin word had actually been adopted into most Germanic languages early on and so quite possibly was in use in Old English.

It may be that it just never got written down or spawned any descendant words of its own, so we don’t know that it was ever part of English before the French influence that came after William the Conqueror.

Because lawyers gather their documents for a case into collections they call briefs we have begun to brief each other and lawyers themselves are sometimes called briefs.

It wasn’t until 1934 that a reference to brief referring to “underpants” entered the written record as found by The Oxford English Dictionary.

Although we might think of briefs as what are now sometimes called tighty whities they must have referred to something else at first because this style of underpants is said to have originated also in 1934 only being marketed in 1935.

Since we don’t know if brief referred to an earlier style or what that style was, brief continues to be obscure.


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.

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