Ostentatious breeches, gods’ braggadocio, and ars poetica
By Anatoly Liberman
As promised, I am returning to the English verb brag and the Old Scandinavian god Bragi (see the previous post). If compared with boast, brag would seem to be more suggestive of bluster and hot air. Yet both may have been specimens of Middle English slang or expressive formations; hence perhaps the obscurity of their origin. The OED gives a summary of the attempts to trace brag to its source. Since the time the first volume of the great dictionary appeared (1884) the situation has not become significantly clearer. The latest publication on the subject (2002), in which the author argues for the Scandinavian derivation of brag, also left several stones unturned.
When Skeat began publishing his dictionary (1882), he quite naturally felt more confident than three decades later. Study of etymology teaches its practitioners caution and humility: the older and the more experienced they become, the less positive they feel about many things (but then such is the way of all scholarly flesh). In the first edition of his dictionary, Skeat insisted that brag was a Celtic word because its putative etymon has been recorded in all (he stressed: all) the Celtic languages. However, he soon gave up his idea. Perhaps, after all, the Celtic verbs were borrowed from English. But this conclusion also has an element of uncertainty. Brag is not such a common word as to be taken over by the speakers of other, even neighboring, countries with unreserved enthusiasm. To be sure, it may have enjoyed greater popularity in the Middle Ages (there is no way of knowing).
Despite the pessimistic tenor of the introduction, it will be wrong to say that absolutely no progress has been made since researchers began pondering the fortunes of brag. French has (had) the noun bragues ~ braies “trousers,” from Latin braca ~ braces, possibly a borrowing in that language. In France, breeches were part of the aristocratic apparel. The lower classes that took part in the French Revolution were called sans-culottes (“without trousers”) for exactly that reason: they wore no “breeches.” According to the French hypothesis of the origin of brag, bragging takes us back to ostentatious clothes. But all the relevant French words were attested centuries later than Engl. brag, so that the connection should be rejected as improbable.
Most likely, brag is a Germanic word. If we disregard as unpromising its comparison with Old Engl. brogne “branch, bough” (this comparison has once been made), we will end up with Old Icelandic braga “shine; glimmer,” bragr “chieftain,” bragr “the art of poetry,” and Bragi, the name of the god of poetry and of the first skald. As usual, semantic bridges are comparatively easy to draw. Poetry was closely connected with its patrons (kings and chieftains), “shine” and “king” form an obvious union, and words for emitting light occasionally also mean “to produce a loud sound” (from a historical point of view, such is, for example, German hell “bright”). Bragging is loud; ostentation and sheen also go together. All this is edifying, but none of the words listed above has any direct connection with boasting. For that reason, Old Engl. (ge)bræc “noise” caught the fancy of many etymologists (ge- is a prefix, æ has the value of a in Modern Eng. brag). Boasting and making a lot of noise go together quite well, but final -c in -bræc (which has the value of Modern Engl. k) and final -g in brag don’t. In Modern English, words ending in -g (tug, leg, rag, drag; bog, bag, fig) are rarely native. But words signifying emotions and those which reached the Standard from the language of “rogues,” such as prig and smug, need not have been borrowings. Therefore, it is at least possible that brag is an expressive variant of brac-, but this is, of course, guesswork.
Perhaps more can be said about br-, a combination that is habitually associated with noise. Classic examples are Engl. break and Swedish bryta “to break.”(Old Icelandic had brjóta; Old Engl. gebryttan dropped out of the language, but its cognate brittle “breakable, fragile” survived.) Old Engl. breahtm meant “noise; cry; revelry” and “brightness.” Pr- may play a similar role. In German prahlen “to boast,” pr- goes back to br-, but in the Dutch verb pronken “to parade, strut” pr- may be original. At first blush, brag belongs with such br- words. Especially important is Middle High German brogen “boast,” which looks almost like a doublet of Engl. brag (first noted in this context by L. W. van Helten).
Here Franciscus Junius the younger (1591-1677), another Dutch scholar, should be mentioned. In 1743 Edward Lye published his etymological dictionary of English, a work of considerable value even today. Junius compared brag with Old Engl. bregan “to frighten.” The two cannot be connected directly, because bregan had long e, which is incompatible with short a in brag. But, related to bregan, the noun broga (also with a long root vowel) “fright, terror; prodigy” has been recorded, and an Old English verb bragan is not unthinkable (short a and long o alternated according to a regular rule). Bragan, assuming that it is not a ghost word, would have yielded Modern Engl. braw (compare draw from dragen), and I suspect that Engl. brawl (of unknown origin!) is a continuation of this unattested braw with the pseudo-suffix -l, on analogy of bawl, maul, and the like. Old Engl. bragan, which I conjured up to boost my argument, may have had an expressive doublet braggan, and such a form would have become Modern Engl. brag in the same way in which stacga and frocga (cg = gg) became stag and frog. But the more unknowns we add to an etymological equation, the harder it is to justify the result. In any case, the Low German or even native origin of brag seems more probable than its borrowing from Scandinavian. I’ll leave out of account a good deal of etymological bric-à-brac and return to Icelandic bragr and others.
The history of those words is, if possible, even more obscure than that of Engl. brag and its half-invisible kin. The sense “poem” (and, consequently, “the god of poetry”) does not accord too well with bragging or showing off, especially if the semantic nucleus of brag was “making a noise.” The art of poetry was associated with “finding” the best words (so in Old Icelandic and Old English, and such is the meaning of the terms troubadour and trouvère, both of them “finders”), “stitching songs together” (such were the Greek rhapsodes), and producers of merriment or inspiration. Poets, even in a state of ecstasy are not braggarts. They may be called the greatest mullahs (so in Kazakhstan, where an akyn is the winner of a contest of singers), but the reference is hardly ever to boastful shouting. The function of some poets was to mock and deride. The Old English scops at one time supposedly performed such a function. A similar interpretation of Old Icelandic skáld “skald” (“scolder?”) has been offered, but it is problematic. Given the evidence at our disposal, we cannot be sure that the senses “chieftain, prince” in Icelandic have anything to do with “poetry.” We also lack good arguments for connecting the god’s name (divine names are called theonyms) with the secular proper name Bragi. For all such reasons, I would prefer to separate Bragi from Engl. brag. Other researchers have different opinions. And this is exactly the reason why in the entry brag we will always read: “Origin unknown.” Nothing to boast of.
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 on the OUPblog 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.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.
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Image credit: The skaldic god Bragi holds a harp and sings while his wife Iðunn holds a bowl of apples in the background. Lorenz Frølich. Published in Gjellerup, Karl (1895). Den ældre Eddas Gudesange. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.