By Anatoly Liberman
It seems reasonable that brisket should in some way be related to breast: after all, brisket is the breast of an animal. But the path leading from one word to the other is neither straight nor narrow. Most probably, it does not even exist. In what follows I am greatly indebted to the Swedish scholar Bertil Sandahl, who published an article on brisket and its cognates in 1964. The Oxford English Dictionary has no citations of brisket prior to 1450, but Sandahl discovered bresket in a document written in 1328-1329, and if his interpretation is correct, the date should be pushed back quite considerably. Before 1535, the favored (possibly, the only) form in English was bruchet(te).
The English word is surrounded with many look-alikes from several languages: Middle French bruchet, brichet, brechet (Modern French bréchet ~ brechet “breastbone”; in French dialects, one often finds -q- instead of -ch-), Breton bruch ~ brusk ~ bresk “breast (of a horse),” along with bruched “breast,” Modern Welsh brysced (later brwysged ~ brysged), and Irish Gaelic brisgein “cartilage (as of the nose).” Then there are German Bries ~ Briesel ~ Brieschen ~ Bröschen “the breast gland of a calf,” Old Norse brjósk “cartilage, gristle,” and several words from the modern Scandinavian languages for “sweetbread” (Swedish bräs, Norwegian bris, and Danish brissel), which, as it seems, belong here too (sweetbread is, of course, not bread: it is the pancreas or thymus, especially of a calf, used as food; -bread in sweetbread is believed to go back to an old word for “flesh”). Many words for “breast” in the languages of the world begin with the grating sound groups br- ~ gr- ~ -khr-, as though to remind us of our breakable, brittle, fragile bones (fraction, fragile, and fragment, all going back to the same Latin root, once began with bhr).
At first blush, brisket, with its pseudo-diminutive suffix, looks like a borrowing from French. But there is a good rule: a word is native in a language in which it has recognizable cognates. To be sure, sometimes no cognates are to be seen or good candidates present themselves in more languages than one, but etymology is not an exact science, and researchers should be thankful for even approximate signposts along the way. In French, bréchet is isolated (and nothing similar has been found in other Romance languages), while in Germanic, brjósk, bris, bräs, and others (see them above) suggest kinship with brisket. Therefore, the opinion prevails that brisket is of Germanic origin. Émile Littré, the author of a great, perennially useful French dictionary, thought that the French word had been borrowed from English during the Hundred Year War (1337-1453), and most modern etymologists tend to agree with him. Then the Celtic words would also be from English (for they too are isolated in their languages), and the etymon of brisket would be either Low (that is, northern) German bröske “sweetbread” or Old Norse brjósk, allied to Old Engl. breosan “break.” The original meaning of brisket may have been “something (easily breakable?) in the breast of a (young?) animal.” If so, contrary to expectation, brisket is not related to breast, for breast appears to have been coined with the sense “capable of swelling,” rather than “capable of breaking” (see my earlier post on breast). Those who insist on the Celtic origin of brisket have a hard time making their case. Needless to say, brisk is not related to brisket.
The reconstruction given above (an English word that spread to French, Irish, and Welsh, an anatomical term designating a brittle part of the breast in an animal’s body) is acceptable, but it leaves the suffix -et unaccounted for. Though rarely, -et does occur in native English words. The best example is thicket, but in such cases it is usually possible to explain how the noun acquired such an unusual look. More often it seems that French -et was appended to native nouns, as probably happened in the history of hornet, tippet, and strumpet. Brisket could be part of that group (the simplest conjecture). Sandahl offered a most ingenious hypothesis. Middle English had the word ket “meat,” taken over from Scandinavian, and Sandahl suggested that perhaps there was a compound like brusk-ket or brust-ket “a piece of gristly flesh.” Such a compound may indeed have existed, but we have no way of ascertaining its presence and for the time being will stay with the suffix -et. Thus, it appears that brisket is a Germanic word of Low German or Scandinavian descent embellished with a French suffix, in order to make the dish more palatable: originally, brösk-et or brjósk-et. (In similar fashion, -et turned a homey Germanic floozy into a classy French prostitute: from strump- to strumpet.) However, the earliest form we know is brushet(te). Its vowel may have been pronounced as ü and reflected an unfamiliar foreign sound, which later yielded brisket and occasionally bresket.
And now here is something for dessert. The origin of the word sobriquet (or soubriquet) has not been discovered, and the development of its meaning cannot but cause surprise. French sobriquet (earlier, soubriquet “tap under the chin”) may go back to souzbequet, from souz (Modern French sous) “under.” Then it means “tap under the nose.” But perhaps the original form implied a chuck under the chest, the second element being brechet “brisket.” Not a rich dessert, but better than nothing.
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 him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”