Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

To boast, perchance to boost; aye, there’s the rub

Not too long ago I discussed the origin of the verb brag, and already then knew that the turn of boast would soon come round. The etymology of boast is not transparent, but, in my opinion, it is not beyond recovery. Rather than following the immortal royal advice (“begin at the beginning, go on to the end and then stop”), I’ll reverse my route and begin at the end. It remains to be seen whether I’ll be able to reach the beginning. Word historians often have to choose between the fire and the frying pan: either nothing at all is known about the word (then everything degrades into unprofitable guesswork) or a number of equally reasonable etymons may present themselves, and it is hard to give preference to any one of them. Some scholars even think that a word can have several etymologies. This formulation does not make sense, but the idea that sometimes more than one source contributes to the production of a word is not indefensible. After all, if the Scandinavian god Heimdallr could be born of nine mothers, why can’t a word have at least two? A search for the early history of brag and boast illustrates the second alternative mentioned above: more than one probable hypothesis compete for recognition.

And there’s the rub. For example, we find an Old French look-alike endowed with a compatible meaning. The same word is represented in several Celtic languages. However, if, in dealing with brag, many researchers (with Skeat, at the start of his etymological career being among them) declared brag a borrowing from Irish or Welsh, boast has been unanimously declared a borrowing in those languages from English. Here I should repeat the question I asked in connection with brag: “Why should such relatively unimportant words as brag and boast have been borrowed?” In English, boast surfaced in texts only at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This date suggests the Scandinavian or the French provenance. While studying the vocabulary of the late Middle Ages, I constantly run into expressive and so-called popular words that were current in several European languages belonging to different groups. My working hypothesis is that such words owe their existence to the international slang of soldiers, adventurers, prostitutes, beggars, conmen, and all those who moved from country to country with mercenaries and traders. Their language was forceful rather than correct, but they made themselves understood wherever they happened to find their temporary refuge. This does not mean that the word we happen to be investigating did not have a homeland. Unfortunately, that land is hard to detect.

Where shall I begin your Majesty?
Where shall I begin your Majesty?

Boasting, like bragging, presupposes company and active interaction: one does not boast to oneself. Let us throw a quick look at the words that may be of interest in the present situation. The Old English verb gielpan “to boast,” which has degenerated into yelp, is irrelevant. German prahlen appeared very late; it resembles Dutch brallen “to boast” and brullen “to roar” and belongs with brawl and perhaps with brag. None of them resembles boast. Neither does Gothic hwopjan (regularized spelling), recorded in the fourth century; its origin has not been discovered, but at first blush it has nothing to do with boast.

More promising is Old Engl. boian “to boast” because it begins with bo-, as does boast. Long ago, the suggestion was made that boast is bo(ian) with the addition of –st, but it remains unclear under the influence of what words –st was “added” to the original root. The syllable bo- is extremely productive. It crops up in interjections like boo, whether we are booing a speaker or cannot make ourselves say boo to a goose, and suggests swelling, attempts to frighten an enemy, and so forth. Dutch bui “gust, squall” and even Engl. bogey seem to be part of this group.

If we add s to bo- and allow vowels to alternate in the root, we will end up with Engl. busy and boisterous, German böse “angry; wicked,” Norwegian baus “proud, arrogant,” and some words for “belly” (for instance, German Bausch). I have a strong suspicion that Engl. bosom ~ German Busen belong here too. The original sense of adjectives like busy was negative, approximately “worthless, bad.” Even today calling someone a busybody is not a compliment. Close by are Dutch bijster” crazy” and German verbiestert “grumpy.” Among the objects apt to swell we find Gothic beist “leaven” and possibly German Biest and Engl. beestings (Old Engl. beost and bysting; all of them mean “first milk from a cow after calving”). The group lacks unity as regards its sound shape and sense. Dictionaries tend to list some of such words together but dismiss most as etymologically obscure.

Regardless of details, boast looks like a member of the b-st club. The first recorded meaning of boast (a noun!) was “a threatening sound”; here we are reminded of Engl. boo. Murray (the OED) proposed, though with great caution, the Old French origin of boast but could not find the sought-for etymon. In 1906 Skeat wrote a triumphant note that began so: “At last we found it!” He discovered Anglo-French bost, which may indeed be translated as “boast.” However, I am unable to share his enthusiasm. Granted, Anglo-French bost existed. What guarantees its Romance origin? Why cannot we suppose that bost was a Middle English word in a French guise? It looks as though half of Europe had words like bost. The ultimate origin of boast can hardly be discovered, but, most likely, its root, to the extent to which such words have ascertainable roots, was bos-, occasionally reinforced by t. They denoted swelling, anger, and other feelings compatible with self-assertion. Next to them existed other more or less synonymous b-s words with other vowels. Judging by Gothic biest “leaven,” “swelling” was among the most ancient meanings of the b-st nouns.

Medieval mercenaries carried not only arrows and diseases but also words from land to land. Boast could have been one of them.
Medieval mercenaries carried not only arrows and diseases but also words from land to land. Boast could have been one of them.

Strange as it may be, boost, which immediately springs to mind in this context, is an Americanism that turned up only in the nineteenth century. Occasionally those who wrote about boast mentioned boost but never discussed it. Dictionaries are unanimous: “Origin unknown.” Yet it beggars belief that boost does not belong with the words referring to swelling and rising. It must have lain dormant in dialectal use for a very long time and been brought to the New World by the colonists (we cannot even begin to guess when). Why it slept so long will forever remain a mystery unless another Skeat makes a revolutionary discovery and cries out: “At last we found it!” Regardless of boost with its short recorded history, boast seems to be a Germanic word that became part of international (military?) slang around 1200 or 1300 and spread to the Celtic and Romance-speaking countries in connection with war, braggadocio, and intimidation. If so, brag and boast had a similar history.

Another boast in English means “to smooth stone to the extent required.” There may even be a third one: “a stroke by which a tennis ball is driven on to the wall of a court at an acute angle.” The boasted stroke answers to the coup de bricole in French; only the boasted force into the dedans is the same as the coup de bosse. Whether boast in tennis and boast in masonry and sculpture are related to each other and boast “brag, vaunt” is unknown. The French derivation of the first of them (“to smooth stone”) left Murray unimpressed. Perhaps Heiner Gillmeister, a great specialist in the history of tennis, will enlighten us on this point and give this blog a badly needed boost.

Image credits: (1) Heimdal and his Nine Mothers. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood. The Elder or Poetic Edda (1908). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Alice in Wonderland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance (1870). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Nance

    Very interesting! Could you say more about what factors make it more likely that a word will be borrowed? Is popularity (frequency in the source language) the primary factor? Are there other characteristics that make a word attractive?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *