Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Bosom, breast, chest, thorax… Part 1

In the recent post on bosom, I wrote that one day I would perhaps also deal with breast. There is nothing new I can say about it, but perhaps not all of our readers know the details of the word’s history and the controversy about its origin.

Breast has related forms in all the Germanic languages. At one time, it belonged to a declension with shifting stress. Consequently, the root vowel occurred in two different forms: stressed and unstressed. To understand the situation, compare the highlighted vowels in Engl. native and valid versus nativity and validity; in both cases, a fully-articulated vowel alternates with schwa. Or compare mortal and mortality. Later, Germanic stress was fixed on the first syllable, and the languages generalized either the full or the reduced grade of the vowel. Therefore, Old English had brēost, with a long diphthong, while Gothic (a Germanic language recorded in the fourth century) had brusts: u continues Proto-Germanic schwa. Modern German also has Brust. The choice was probably arbitrary.

An indispensable image of the dual.
An indispensable image of the dual.

The most conspicuous features of the word for “breast” in the various old languages are its predominant use in the plural and its occurrence in all three grammatical genders. In Gothic and German, it was feminine. In Old Icelandic, it was neuter, while Old Engl. brēost has been recorded in all three genders. As early as 1882, Friedrich Kluge, the famous German scholar whose name still graces the title page of the main etymological dictionary of German (now in its 25th revised edition), explained the word’s attraction to the plural by the fact that at one time it had been a dual. Today we distinguish between the singular and the plural, but in the past the dual was their equal partner. For example, different forms existed for we and you, depending on whether the two of us or all of us, the two of you or “y’all” were meant. Some nouns most often occurred only in the dual. Predictably, this usage affected the objects that are more often spoken about in pairs, such as eyes and ears. In Old Germanic, the dual went over to the plural, and only some pronouns and endings sporadically retained the ancient category.

Kluge’s suggestion found immediate support and is now commonplace, but one wonders why breast had to be dual. The most obvious answer seems to be that at one time the word referred to a woman’s breast (it will be remembered that a similar conjecture was also made and rejected about bosom), but no evidence substantiates this idea. As a matter of fact, the little we know about the early history of breast points in the opposite direction. Also, two nipples on a man’s breast are as visible as two female breasts, even though much less useful. In any case, when our word began to be used in the singular and plural, it could choose its grammatical gender in a somewhat unpredictable way.

Not every breast needs a breastplate.
Not every breast needs a breastplate.

The initial form must have been the neuter dual (later plural). The way from the neuter plural to the feminine singular is short, for those forms tended to coincide (hence the situation in Gothic and German). However, the neuter plural could as painlessly yield the neuter singular (this is what happened in Old Icelandic). Only occasional occurrences of Old Engl. brēost in the masculine arouse surprise, but language and logic are often at cross-purposes, or, to put it differently, language develops according to the logic that often escapes us. Very much in its history depends on chance rather than choice. Byrne “armor, hauberk”  was called brynja by the marauding Vikings, and the Old Norse word must have been known only too well in Anglo-Saxon England (readers of English chivalric romances will of course remember byrnie). One sign of the popularity of the Scandinavian word is its use in Russian (bronia— stress on the second syllable—“armor”). Brynja and breast are, to use the vague formula of the etymological jargon, are distantly related (possibly, but not certainly, through Celtic; the names of weapons and other terms related to warfare are typical migratory words). In any case, hauberks were worn on men’s breast. This circumstance might have suggested to the speakers of Old English the masculine gender of brēost. Mere guessing, as Skeat liked to say.

The origin of breast poses many problems; yet the verdict would be not “unknown” but “controversial” or “disputed.” The Gothic Bible is a translation from Greek. In it brusts is used for two words in the original: one does mean “breast” (stēthos), but the other means “entrails, pluck” (splagkhna). Both are recognizable to English speakers from stethoscope and partly from spleen. Perhaps “belly” can be substituted for “entrails.” This lack of uniformity in the text, which is otherwise a model of care and linguistic acumen, need not bother anyone. A look at the words employed for human anatomy shows that the division of the body into limbs and “sections” varies from language to language. The anthologized examples are Germanic words for “arm/hand” and “leg/foot” and different terms for “finger” and “toe.” Outside Germanic, people do very well without such subtleties, just as outside English they manage to tell time without distinguishing between “watch” and “clock.” (While thinking about such idiosyncrasies of usage, I once decided to look up toe in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English and was informed that toe is a finger on the foot. Other dictionaries go out of the way to avoid such a funny definition and speak about “digits” or “terminal members,” which is even funnier. By the way, both finger and toe are words of almost impenetrable etymology.)

Byrnie: uncomfortable but masculine and safe.
Byrnie: uncomfortable but masculine and safe.

We can assume that the Goths had one word for the entire front part of the trunk. “Belly” (or its inside), merging in Gothic with “breast” has a parallel in Slavic. Long ago, it was suggested (and later accepted) that cognates of Germanic brusts, as in Gothic, are Russian briukho “belly” (stress on the first syllable; similar forms occur in other Slavic languages) and quite probably Old Irish bruinne “breast,” from brusnio-. One notices at once that bruinne sounds very much like Old Icelandic brynja (the Gothic word was brunjo). Whatever one may say about “mere guessing,” brusts and brunjo are close! The second protects the first.

Given so many related forms in Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic, we can perhaps try to discover the etymology of the word breast. Here our authorities offer various solutions. Only one feature unites them: no one is quite sure where the word came from. Several reconstructed roots compete, and next week I’ll offer a short survey of the opinions known to me. But, and here I am returning to the beginning of this post, etymology is not all about the discovery of the prehistoric root. It is at least equally important to understand what happened to our word or words after they assumed the forms recorded in written and printed documents. Why does English have two very old words: breast and bosom? What made people borrow chest? This luxury, reminiscent of the existence of watch and clock, finger and toe, is sometimes not easier to explain than the origin of the most ancient roots.

To be continued.

Image credits: (1) Ancient Egyptian hoe and plough. Image from page 242 of “Anthropology; an introduction to the study of man and civilization” (1896). Internet Archive Book Images. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr. (2) West African chimpanzee. Image from page 62 of “Animal Life and the World of Nature; A magazine of Natural History” (1902). Internet Archive Book Images. No known copyright restrictions via Flickr. (3) “Ye Knight”. Detroit : The Calvert Lith. Co., c1874. Public domain. Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. Tom Elliot

    Breast – 13 April 2016 – you mention breast appearing with different vowel grades in English and German. Wiktionary suggests the English comes from an a-stem form of the root and the German from a consonant stem. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/breust%C4%85 and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/brusts
    Are the statements all compatible?

Comments are closed.