Even a quick look at the history of words meaning “break” shows how often they begin with the sound group br-. Break has cognates in several Germanic languages. The main Old Scandinavian verb was different (compare Modern Swedish bryta, Norwegian bryte, and so forth), but it, too, began with br-. A verb related to bryta existed in Old English (breotan). It has not survived, and only its isolated derivative, the adjective brittle, that is, liable to break, break-able remained (-le is a suffix, as in fickle and nimble, for instance). Although recorded only in the 14th century, it may have been coined much earlier. The presence of br– in the break group (add burst, from older brestan, to it) is probably not fortuitous: words designating violent movements and loud noises are often sound imitative (or, to use another term, onomatopoeic). Outside such trivial cases as moo, quack, and baa, the onomatopoeic origin of any word is hard to prove, but brek-brak look (sound) like reasonable candidates for this treatment. In several Old Germanic languages, brak meant “creaking noise” or “crash.” (Both glosses—creak and crash—are also onomatopoeias.). Norwegian brakke and Danish brage “rumble” are their descendants. In Gothic, a Germanic language that has come down to us in a 4th-century translation of the Bible, brakja was used to render the Greek noun for “struggle.” Obviously, fighting presupposes a lot of noise. The sound combinations br-, dr-, gr-, and kr– are ideally suited to make people think of noises and their effect. German Krieg “war” (its distant ancestor may have begun with gr-) is one of them. Little is known about the origin of Engl. brabble “squabble” (now regional), brag, and brawl, but it would be strange if, in at least some way, they did not belong with brakja and its kin. Bray (now said only about a donkey’s cry but earlier a word with a much broader range of meanings) came to English from French, where it is believed to have descended from some verb like bragere, an exact counterpart of brag. There is another bray “crush small,” which traveled from Germanic to Romance and returned “home” (to England) from France; it is an adaptation of Germanic brekan, and thus an etymological doublet of break.
Words designating all kinds of fragile things tend to be related to break. Among them is probably bracken “fern,” borrowed, in all likelihood, from Scandinavian. Its cognates have been attested with the senses “branch,” “bush,” “juniper,” and so forth. The initial meaning of bracken must have been “tree” or “brushwood.” People broke trees and called the product brak-. Later some of those words acquired more specialized meanings, “fern” and “juniper,” among others. The ties between Latin branca, from which, via French, English has branch, and brak– cannot be direct, for Latin cognates of break begin with fr– (compare fragile, a Romance word), but the coincidence is curious. Engl. bran is of Celtic origin, and its earliest meanings may have been “broken pieces.” Going through English bra-words is an edifying experience. Brash, if still remembered outside Scotland, is now used only in water brash. It surfaced in 15th-century texts and meant “attack.” Another relative of Gothic brakja? Brash “impetuous” (now more often “saucy”), a synonym of rash, has been known from books since the 16th century, and, when it emerged, it meant “brittle”; wood and timber can still be called brash. An easy etymology immediately suggests itself. Whether it is justified is another matter. Under brake, three words are listed: brake “thicket” (first recorded in Old Engl. fearnbraca “beds of fern,” genitive plural), which returns us to braca “branch” and to broken wood; brake “fern” (again fern!), in some obscure way connected with bracken; and brake, as on bikes and in cars, which first meant “bridle” (assuming that we are dealing with the same word), a borrowing from Dutch, where it was applied to all kinds of breaking and crushing instruments. It appears that all three are related to break and to one another.
At one time, brake was the past tense of break, as spake was the past of speak (the corresponding German forms are still brach and sprach). The past participle broke competed with broken. A good example of it will be found in Longfellow’s anthologized lyric “The Arrow and the Song,” which decades ago every schoolchild in the United States learned by heart. Those days belong to an epoch, when teachers were not yet called educators, but the lyric has aged gracefully and lost none of its naïve charm. It begins so: “I shot an arrow into the air,/ It fell to earth, I knew not where.” Six lines later, we read: “Long, long afterward, in an oak/ I found the arrow, still unbroke.” Longfellow used a deliberate archaism–a common case of poetic license. The participle broke dies hard (to be more precise, it has no intention of dying in popular speech), and dictionaries implore their users not to say: “My arm is broke.” However, the tenacious form carved a niche for itself (sorry for using a word trodden to death), and achieved a measure of respectability, for broke “bankrupt” is fine (I mean the word, not the thing).
It may seem that broker is part of the br-group, but it is not. The early history of this noun is unknown. Yet broke– in broker is probably a variant of broach. Both broach and its homophone brooch go back to a word for “prong, spike.” A “broacher” opened wine caskets, whereas the original broker was a small trader, a secondhand dealer and a seller of wine. Today we broach subjects and broker agreements. Even if broker and broach developed differently, neither word is akin to break. A broker does not break anything, but, by way of consolation, a breaker (billow) does: it breaks on the shore. We can go on reading the dictionary: bracket, bramble, brat, brave, brazen… None of them is sound imitative. Such are the wiles of onomatopoeia. Ignoring it in etymological research is silly. It is equally silly to look for it everywhere.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”