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The “brave” old etymology

By Anatoly Liberman


One of the minor questions addressed in my latest “gleanings” concerned the origin of the adjective brave. My comment brought forward a counter-comment by Peter Maher and resulted in an exchange of many letters between us, so that this post owes its appearance to him. Today I am returning to brave, a better-informed and more cautious man. Romance etymology is not my turf, though from time to time I discuss English words of French origin. Whenever I do it, I feel out of my element and indulge in a goodly amount of hedging. My most successful inroad on this area was probably an essay on bigot, but only because I discovered a review of which no one seems to be aware.

The problems facing Romance etymologists are, in principle, not different from those familiar to students of Germanic, except that the Romance languages go back to Latin, while Proto-Germanic is a reconstructed language. Yet hundreds of words in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and other Romance languages, including even Italian, either do not have indisputable Latin sources or are not traceable to any Latin roots, so that their early history is as hard to find out as the history of many English, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian words. Bravus is one of them. It turned up in Medieval Latin, and no one knows for sure where it came from.

Those interested in etymology should also be interested in how specialists discover word origins. Even if we agree that with a few exceptions our concern for the history of etymology need not go beyond the nineteenth century, the number of guesses about the sources of Greek, Latin, Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, and Romance words is huge. Modern explorers never begin from scratch and naturally want to know the hypotheses of their predecessors. No matter that many conjectures are naïve or even silly. Panning for gold involves a lot of sifting. That is why, when I embarked on writing a new etymological dictionary of English, I first put together a huge database. Thousands of pages were screened for everything said in any language at any time about the origin of English words. But I had to limit myself. For example, nectar is an English word, but its origin should be discovered by students of Greek, and, although I am aware of numerous works on nectar, I passed over most of them and allowed the Greeks to bury their dead. The same holds for Romance. Brave is a fine English word, but Romance, not English, scholars should tell us where and how it arose. That is why I skipped without interest an article on brave that Peter Maher wrote more than forty years ago. I even forgot that it existed. If I had been aware of it when I was writing my gleanings, my comment would have looked different. Anyway, by now I have familiarized myself with multiple publications on the descent of brave. The literature on this word is not vast: the dictionaries and a dozen or so articles.

So where did brave come from? The best-known putative etymon of Medieval Latin bravus is Classical Latin barbarus. These are the glosses of barbarus given in Oxford Latin Dictionary: “of or belonging to a foreign country or region (“non-Greek”); ignorant, uncivilized, unpolished, uncouth; (of natural objects) wild, uncultivated, rough, cruel, fierce.” The glosses from three modern dictionaries run as follows. Spanish: bravio (of animals) “ferocious, wild, untamed”; (of plants) “wild”; (of people) “rustic, unpolished.” Italian: bravo “clever; skillful; good; worthy; honest; brave.” French: brave “brave, bold; good, honest.” French faire le brave means “to bluster; brag”; brag will haunt us some time later. Portuguese bravo and bravio add no new senses. The French adjective is a borrowing of Provençal brau ~ bravo. German brav and Engl. brave are loanwords from French. Scots braw is a variant of brave. The straight path from Latin barbarus to Spanish and Portuguese bravio would be through “wild, uncultivated, fierce, savage.” “Bold” presupposes an amelioration of “fierce,” while “honest, worthy” and “good” are still farther away from Latin.

The main handicap in connecting brave and barbarus is phonetics. Barbarus had to become brabarus by metathesis (ar to ra) and lose part of its middle or to turn some other somersaults in order to produce the form bravus (b to v after a vowel is “regular,” lautgesetzlich, to use the German term). For that reason, many researchers rejected this etymology, though similar changes have often been recorded. Another suggestion traces bravus to Latin rabidus “raving, mad; rabid” (it is the oldest etymology of bravus on record). But here we are missing b-! The unattested adjective brabidus has been invoked as the etymon of Old Italian braido “sprightly, nimble; good”; yet it is unclear whether braido has anything to do with rabidus. Initial b in bravus might have come from some words denoting animal cries and all kinds of noises (compare French bruit “noise” and Engl. bray, from French, and remember that bravio was especially often used about untamed animals), but there is no way to prove that this reconstruction is right.

When a blend is known to be a blend, everything is fine (consider motel, smog, and their likes). In other cases, we cannot go beyond intelligent guessing. Perhaps squirm is a blend of squirt and worm, but perhaps it is not. All the analogs that have been cited for br from r are dubious. Several variations on this etymology (for instance, the sought-for source was said to be not Latin rabidus but some Germanic adjective like German rauh ~ Engl. raw) do not improve matters. A few other conjectures, though offered by respectable scholars, have so little credence that the authors of serious dictionaries and learned articles do not even find them worthy of discussion (and say so).

The strongest competitor of the barbarus—brave etymology is the one that derives bravus from Latin pravus “wrong, bad, deformed.” If we agree that the Spanish and Portuguese senses are especially close to those of the unattested etymon, then the word must have originated in the Iberian Peninsula, spread to Italy and France and from France to several countries of Europe. The story apparently began with “wild, untamed, uncultivated.” In the language of chivalry, “wild” acquired noble overtones and “courageous, gallant; worthy, good” arose. Among the glosses of Latin pravus we don’t find “uncultivated.” Maher has offered a strong defense of the pravus—brave etymology. He showed that in some contexts pravus could be understood as meaning “uncivilized, wild.” Another problem is pr- versus br-. Between vowels, Latin -pr- regularly became Spanish -br-, as in capra to cabra “nanny-goat,” but in pravus the group pr- stands at the beginning of the word. Here again Maher pointed to the possibility of pravus or its Romance reflexes often occurring after a word ending in a vowel.  Although some cases of initial p to b have also been recorded, this etymology depends on the semantic and phonetic context rather than on the evidence of isolated words (and this idea was the main point in Maher’s contribution).  It is not for me to decide whether its probability is considerably higher than that of some others.

In my gleanings, I suggested that, if being made to choose between barbarus and pravus as the etymon of brave, I might prefer the first. Today I should say more clearly that neither strikes me as particularly convincing. Nor is, to my mind, (b)rabidus quite fanciful! If it were, such different etymologists as the rather conservative Norwegian Johan Strom and the passionately nonconformist Swiss researcher Hugo Schuchardt would not have supported it. The bad thing about etymological dictionaries (and here I find myself in full agreement with Maher) is that most of them offer too little discussion. Tentative opinions solidify into dogmas and are offered to the public as truths. Popular books copy them unthinkingly, and untested ideas become common knowledge. In the first edition of his dictionary, Friedrich Kluge (every historical linguist’s role model) put a question mark at the etymology of German brav from barbarus. Later he found this derivation solid, and the question mark disappeared. The French dictionary of Ernst Gamillscheg (an extremely knowledgeable author) also does without a question mark (brave from barbarus). In Italy, Prati said “unclear, but not from barbarus, rather from pravus.” By contrast, Devoto believed that the ways of barbarus and pravus crossed and produced bravo. Much sorrow and little wisdom come from reading even the best dictionaries.

The great seventeenth-century lexicographer Charles Du Cange, a marvel of diligence and perspicacity, whom one is tempted to call a genius, observed that the Medieval Latin noun branas means the same as brava. In 1950, George G. Nicholson took up this idea and suggested that brav- is indeed a learned misreading (note: a misreading, not a mispronunciation) of bran-, influenced by pravus. Strangely, such “catastrophes” are possible. Engl. gravy, from late Middle English graué, seems to be a misreading of Old French grané, because u and n were easily confused in manuscripts. In printed texts, grané often appeared as gravé. Nicholson’s article, lost in a three-volume Festschrift, does not seem to have attracted anyone’s attention (a common case in etymological studies). I ran into it while looking through every Festschrift I could lay hands on. It will be a great joke if such was the history of bravus: a tame ghost, the result of a linguistic miscarriage, conquering the world. Once again, I reserve judgment.

Bravissimo, Oxford Etymologist!
Bravissimo, Oxford Etymologist!

It now remains for me to say that at the time when English lexicographers gave the initial meaning of brave as “finely arrayed, showy” or simply “capital, excellent” (as in the brave new world), this word was derived from Celtic and paired with Engl. brag, allegedly also from Celtic. Skeat thought so for a short while, Wedgwood never changed his opinion that brave and brag are related, and even Weekley considered Celtic as a possible lending language of brave. Some time ago, I devoted a post to brag (which I dissociated from brave) and need not go into the question again. To conclude: today it takes a brave man (or woman) to have a strong opinion on the origin of brave. I am, unfortunately, timid.

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 blog@oup.com; 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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Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    “timid” ? Nay, “cautious” maybe – and rightly so. Count me among those pictured madly clapping their hands.

  2. John Peter Maher

    The Dane Jespersen was a giant of English linguistics. Sapir, not an American Indian, but a German Jew by descent, demonstrated “The Northern Origin of the Navaho”. Anatoly Liberman follows in their noble footsteps. I haven’t a drop of English blood in my veins and I am not an etymologist of English only. My publications, in English, are on lexicon, are never in isolated scrabble games, but only in context of syntax of words and syntax of things. I “do” Greek, Latin, Slavic, Germanic — Indo-European, with glances at neighbors of the IE-ans. My MA degree is in Greek and Latin with emphasis on Medieval Latin. There is no Classical “Latin “bravus”. The readings ‘The French reflexes of PRAVUS are to be found in the surname “Brébeuf” and “Brabeuf” etc., for a young beef not yet broken to the plow. Note the BR. My MA thesis (1958) was on Book X of Pliny’s Natural History, but I peeked into Book XI , where we find the source of the catastrophic claim that BRAVO would be a reflex of BARBARUS. Such was the claim of Henry and Renee Kahane in their 1981 review of my 1977 “Papers on Language Theory and History”’. This they dubbed a “Maverick’s Manifesto.” I am eternally grateful. But why did K & K go for the BRAVO A BARBARO etymology? Because, as Professor Liberman aptly said, “catastrophes” happen. The spurious BARBARUS of the authoritative dictionaries is the result of a misreading of MSS of the Naturalis Historia. Kahane and Kahane resorted to secondary and tertiary sources, grievously out of date editions which assert that Pliny wrote of **barbarae uespae `wild (species of) wasps’. Are there tame ones? K&K did not consult up-to-date editions of Pliny that reflect the recensions of Mone 1855 and Detlefsen 1867. See the sigla in the Rackham edition, l967:l74. Practically no modern linguists have been taught to read the code at the bottom of the page of editions of ancient authors. The medieval copyists of the MSS made reading and writing errors; they wrote FETUS UARIUS (fetus varius) ‘wasp grub of varied colors). The scribe gets to the UAR_ and begins the next line with a repeat of the UAR-, a dittography. The scribes of the time also mixed up Latin B and U (semi-uncial for capital V). The result is the catastrophic UARUARUS or BARBARUS. Romans in Pompeii were already confused: one graffito writes of a young man who was ‘handsome and the baddest dude” — BELLUS ET PRAUESSIMUS. Renaissance Italian “un bravo” is a hit man.

  3. John Peter Maher

    Nectar. Raimo Anttila and Saul Levin both worked on this. Levin derives it from Semitic.

  4. John Peter Maher

    The putative etymon of Medieval Latin bravus is not Classical Latin barbarous, because “medieval Latin” bravus is a false reconstruction. Medievall Latin is full of non-Latin words, like potassium ‘pot-ash’. Compare Latinate Italian Macthia, ghectus, which clone the set Italian otto 8 and Latin octo.

  5. John Peter Maher

    “Romance, not English, scholars …” Professor Liberman’s being Russian did not preclude his writing the monumental Bibliography of English etymology.

  6. Colin Fine

    What of Scandinavian “bra” (“good”, not just of people)? Is that a borrowing like the German?

  7. John Peter Maher

    The Oxford Latin Dictionary glosses need review or revision. They seem to copy anachronistic glosses from older dictionaries. A new edition is needed.

  8. [...] uneventful life of the Oxford Etymologist (in this roundabout way I refer to myself) has been the controversy around the origin of bravus, the etymon of bravo ~ brave. When this blog was launched on 1 March 2006, the hope was that it [...]

  9. Roland Schuhmann

    Dear Prof. Liberman!

    When you write: “The bad thing about etymological dictionaries (and here I find myself in full agreement with Maher) is that most of them offer too little discussion” I will nothing say against this, because it is the truth. But: it is in fact – working myself on an etymologcal dictionary – a very unfair remark, because not the dictionaries or their authors are to blame for that, but the organisations (however, I can understand them as well!), who give money for such projects. No etymological dictionary project will ever get money for collecting what was written before the dictionary is actually written; every project is limited in time – we are a ‘long time project’ where every three years one volume has to be published (one just has to count the words in one volume to see how much time per word can be spent); the more short term projects (like that what is done in Leiden) are in a far worse situation. And here is where the problem is in fact hidden: It is rare that a country (the OED is a hell of an exception, although, when I get that correct not state funded) has a (nearly) never ending institution where people get paid to do exactly that (Duden in Germany is not comparable and the Grimm Dictionary is shut down now) …

    Best wishes, Roland Schuhmann

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