Break and Other Br- Words
by Anatoly Liberman
This is the promised continuation of the previous post. As I said last week, break is an old word. In the foggy days of Proto-Indo-European, it may have begun with the consonant bh (or simply bh), pronounced as in Modern Engl. abhor or Rob Hanson. For our purposes, the difference between b and bh matters not at all, because today we are only interested in observing how many words referring to breaking begin with br-. The subject of this essay is: “To what extent is classifying break with sound imitative (onomatopoeic) words justified?”
Moo, meow, and, admittedly, oink-oink are sound imitative. But once we leave the animal world and exclamations like phew and whew, assigning words to onomatopoeia is always problematic. Thus, each member of the set—crack, crash, crush, creak, croak, and cry—looks like any other word beginning with kr-, for example, craft, crawl, and creep, but in their entirety they produce the impression of belonging together and suggest a rather obvious sound effect. The same holds for initial gr-: compare groan, growl, grumble, grunt, and possibly grind. Numerous words signifying grouchy people, as well as grim and gruesome things, also begin with gr-. Labeling them sound imitative will not take us too far, since they have well-developed bodies and not only heads.
Modern scholars have no idea how language originated (or rather they have many ideas that cancel one another out; the usual cliché is “shrouded in mystery”), but in the existing languages words are conventional signs, that is, when we look at a word, we usually do not know its referent in the world of things. If we possessed such knowledge, explanatory and bilingual dictionaries would not be necessary: anybody would be able to look at a “sign” like bed or ten, or give and guess what it means. Moo is fine (presumably, no dictionary is required for translating it), but oink-oink is obscure: perhaps it is a soothing exclamation like tut-tut, a verb like pooh-pooh, a noun like tomtom (a drum), or the name of a disease like beriberi. I am not sure that pigs go oink-oink, and anybody can notice that the canine language is represented by several dialects: compare bow-wow, barf-barf, and yap-yap. And yet, crash, crush, crack, and so forth rather obviously have something to do with onomatopoeia. People seem to have begun with the sound imitative complex kr and added a syllable, to make the words pronounceable. This may be a bit of a stretch, but the etymological principle behind my statement is (if a pun will be allowed) sound.
Old English had the verb breotan, which also meant “break.” It has been lost, except for its cognate brittle “liable to break, fragile.” Breotan lacks attested cognates, and its origin is unknown. But the fact remains that, like break, which had many cognates, it also begins with br-. Though today burst contains a well-formed group bur-, its most ancient form was brestan (in such groups vowels and consonants often play leapfrog—this process is called metathesis: compare Engl. burn and German brennen; the German verb has preserved a more ancient stage: the original form was brannjan; the Old English for run was rinnan alternating with iernan; Peter Maher called my attention to gurn ~ girn “contort one’s face, grimace,” possibly from grin; nucelar for nuclear and progidy for prodigy, the latter with whole syllables transposed, are modern instances of metathesis). Bursting implies breaking suddenly with a loud noise; thus, another br-word. Brake “an instrument for retarding motion,” as also mentioned last week, has several homophones. Since brake is related to break, it too has a sound imitative nature. A brake “breaks” motion; consequently, this conclusion should arouse no protest. But what about the other nouns called brake?
There is brake “thicket” (from Old Engl. -bracu; it has been recorded only as the second element of a compound). If, as has been suggested, bracu meant “broken wood,” it is akin to the verb break. But perhaps one had to make one’s way through a bracu with an ax. The result, as far as we are concerned, will be the same. Middle Low German (that is, the Northern German of the medieval period) had the word brake “branch.” The name must have been given to a branch broken off (branch itself, a noun borrowed from French, has obscure antecedents: another br- word or a coincidence?). To the extent that brake was applied to various crushing instruments (see more about it in the previous post), we are again among the progeny of break. Another word for “thicket” is brush (from French, with cognates elsewhere in the Romance languages). Its ultimate origin is not quite clear, but the initial meaning of brush was “lopping of trees.” Inasmuch as onomatopoeia has no national borders, one can risk the conjecture that br- in brush and bracu goes back to similar sources. Brusque, brash, and brunt deserve more than a passing mention, but, considering their meaning, their form is suggestive.
The hardest word to etymologize is bracken. Brake “fern” surfaced in the 14th century and may be a shortening of bracken, recorded at approximately the same time, though the reason for shortening is unknown. Bracken has Scandinavian cognates: Swedish bräken, Danish bregne, and Norwegian bregne (or burkne). This plant name seems to be related to Old Engl. bracu. Was fern called this because it breaks easily? With some satisfaction we learn that Old Icelandic brak and brakan meant “a creaking noise” and that brák was the name a tanner’s instrument for processing leather (á designated long a, again as in Engl. father), so, in a way, another crushing instrument. Presumably, the entire brake family, or rather the part of it that is of ascertained Germanic origin, belongs with break; all its members seem to owe something to sound imitation. Saying that does not settle the question about their etymology, but it tells us something about how they came about. A little irony of word history is that the compound in which Old Engl. bracu occurred was fernbraca (genitive plural), that is, “fern thicket, fern bed.” The original meaning of fern is doubtful, probably “a feathered plant,” for it may be related to the Greek word for “wing,” as in Engl. pterodactyl, literally “feather-finger”; nothing in its name suggests breaking or braking.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”