Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Approaching “brash”

Two weeks ago, I promised to deal with the word brash, but, before doing so, I would like to make it clear that we are approaching a minefield. Few people, except for professional etymologists, think of words in terms of phonetic or semantic groups. (With regard to phonetics, note my recent series on kl-words, from clutter and clod to cloud and cloth.) Inquisitive students ask: “What is the origin of brouhaha, hullabaloo, and shenanigans?” It seldom occurs to them that brouhaha may be in some obscure way related to other br– words, that, to discover the derivation of hullabaloo, one should cast a wide net and consider other such  slangy formations, and that for explaining shenanigans it is necessary to study certain and possible borrowings from Irish. The phonetic aspect is the hardest. So to repeat: Can brouhaha be “related” to bread and brother?

In the past, I have discussed only two br-words: brisket  and brothel. The origin of both is problematic. The whole br-page even in such a small reference book as The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology should strike awe in a word lover. A caveat: etymological dictionaries have mastered, and mastered to the full, the art of talking a lot and saying little. The most common trick is to list numerous cognates and stop, as though knowing that a word has relatives in three or more languages is an etymology. Sometimes those cognates are traced to a hypothetical root, but this root (Germanic or Indo-European) is an abstraction from those same cognates and does not increase our stock of knowledge. Finally, quite often we learn that a certain word is from Latin or French, but it may appear that the origin of the Latin  or the French word in question has not been discovered: the answer is only looming (excuse me for this unsubtle reference to one of my previous posts), which  means “appearing in the distance.” A good etymology sets out to explain how the recorded form came into being and why it means what it does. Etymologists reach the desired destination on the rarest occasions. All this is not an innuendo but an exercise in self-criticism.

What then do we find on the br-page? Brother is a kin term, with congeners in half of the world, and something is known about it. It certainly had a suffix (compare Latin fra-ter, along with father / pa-ter and daugh-ter), which probably designated the inclusion of this man in a certain group (“fraternity”), but what is fra- ~ bro-? And bread? It is a West Germanic word, and two main etymologies of it compete. One may be correct, or both may be wrong. Brother and bread are aristocrats in the world of words, because they are so well-connected; yet we still cannot explain why people called “brother” brother and “bread” bread. Elsewhere, we run into a host of commoners and poor relatives.

Not by bread alone, but it would be nice to know why bread is called bread.
Not by bread alone, but it would be nice to know why bread is called bread.

Take bribe, for instance. It is nice to know that the word is French, but English speakers have proved themselves good pupils (to be sure, they have had ample time to learn their lesson). In the fourteenth century, bribe meant “to steal” and acquired its present sense two hundred years later. Since words for stealing are often slang, it is no wonder that their origin tends to be lost. Incidentally, both steal and thief are also words of obscure etymology. Next comes broad. The adjective is like the noun bread: Germanic and of unknown origin. As to broad “woman,” several ingenious conjectures have been offered. However the word may have originated, the sad path from “woman” to “prostitute” is short and has numerous analogs (historical linguists call this process deterioration of meaning, as opposed to the much rarer process known as amelioration of meaning; apparently, to improve is harder than to degrade). Even whore (with it non-historical initial w-) is related to Latin cārus “dear” (the Gothic Bible, a fourth-century Germanic text, already had the noun hors “adulterer”: alas, love in the past did not always have romantic overtones).

I deliberately stay with the most common, universally known words. Brick is around to offer its services. However, its neighbors are more obscure. Above it in my dictionary stands bric-à-brac, and under it bricole “a military engine of catapult” appears (I am sure many more people know bricole only as a tennis or billiards term). If you have never encountered bricole, you may have heard French bricolage: in English, it means “construction of an artifact from chance available materials” (bricoler “to putter about”). The word was made famous by the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. At one time, his works were studied in all language departments. Now he is remembered by relatively few old admirers, which does not mean that the trends and fads that came later are better. Is bric-à-brac (which is French of course) sound-imitative? If so, then imitative of what? Producing bricks is serious business, different from bricolage and breaking. Also, the vowels of break (Old Engl. brecan) and brick do not match.

These children love bricolage. When they grow up they may (or may not) study the works by Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Some of those vagaries could be disregarded if it did not turn out that bride is another word of unknown origin. Strange things happen here. Wife (Old Engl. wīf) was neuter (a word for “woman” was neuter? Indeed it was: see the post of 12 October 2011), and bride, which has cognates in all the Old Germanic languages, including Gothic, could sometimes mean “a married woman.” I am glad that yesterday does not begin with br-. Otherwise, our confusion would have been even worse confounded, for the cognates of yesterday occasionally meant “tomorrow” (in Gothic, it was the only sense of gistradagis). Hypotheses on the origin of bride exist, but they are full of acrobatics, and, as a general rule, very clever, intricate etymologies turn out to be wrong. By way of consolation, I can add that the adjective bridal poses no problems: it began its life in English as a compound noun: bride + ale (from ealu) and meant “wedding feast; wedding.” Later, the second syllable was shortened to –al and taken for a suffix. Such things happen not too rarely. Since we are speaking about feasts, it will be remembered that wassail goes back to wæs hæil and to earlier wæs hāl “be whole (healthy),” a salutation used when drinking to a guest’s health. Those are facts, not conjectures.

Here comes the bride all dressed in white, but the etymology of bride is enveloped in darkness.
Here comes a bride all dressed in white, but at the moment she is in a brown study, for she does not know the origin of the word “bride.”

The names of metals are among the hardest to investigate. Brass (of West Germanic provenance) is still another word of unknown etymology. Brazen is certainly related to it in both its literal and figurative senses. Brazier “a worker in brass” apparently contains the same root. But brazier “a pan for holding burning charcoal” is from French. French braise means “hot coals”; hence Engl. braise “to cook in a closed pan.” Although this word is believed to have been borrowed from Germanic, this fact sheds no light on brass.

My list goes on and on, and the turn of brash will come round very soon, but today my aim was to show that etymological dictionaries can sometimes be read like novels. I have presented a few passages from the chapter “Words Beginning with br-” Think of bring, bridge, brogue (whichever sense), brat, the noun brook, the mysterious brumby “a wild horse in Australia,” and Johnathan Swift’s Brobdingnag, and you will never be bored or go broke. Br– may express all kinds of feelings or nothing at all. Therein lies the beauty of the present exercise in bricolage.

Images: (1) Bread by jacqueline macou, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Portrait of Claude Lévi-Strauss taken in 2005” by UNESCO/Michel Ravassard, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Children-sandbox by Arek Socha, Public Domain via Pixabay. (4) Bride by opertv, Public Domain via Pixabay. Featured image: “Bric-a-brac” by xlibber, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.