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Face to face with brash: part 1

Lat week, I discussed the hardships endured by an etymologist who decides to investigate the origin of English br- words, and promised to use that post as an introduction to the story of brash. Today, I’ll try to make good on part of my promise.

There are at least three words spelled and pronounced as brash. One surfaced in Scots in the fifteenth century and meant “attack.” Later, it narrowed its meaning to “a bout of sickness,” and survives in water brash “eructation of liquid from the stomach.” Then there is brash “brittle,” known since the sixteenth century. It’s anybody’s guess whether the best-known brash “rash, impetuous, audacious” is the same word as brash “brittle.” The senses match poorly. Rashness can of course result in being broken, but the connection is tenuous. The late eighteenth-century brash “a mass of fragments” appears to be akin to the obsolete verb brash “to break (a wall)” and goes well with brittle. Regional words, those mentioned in The English Dialect Dictionary by Joseph Wright, add nothing new. Brash “brittle” and “rash, impetuous” are common all over England. Cold, bracing weather could be called brash. In Yorkshire, brashing was (or still is?) the name of a weakling, used of a child or animal. Fern’s runt Wilbur (in E. B. White’s book Charlotte’s Web) was certainly a brashing. In Scotland, according to Jamieson, bread made of a mixture of rye and oats is called brash-bread.

In Yorkshire, this runt would be called a brashing.
In Yorkshire, this runt would be called a brashing.

Some of the words, mentioned above, are obviously related, and it comes as a surprise how little etymological dictionaries have to say about the derivation of brash. “Origin unknown” is not an uncommon verdict, while Hensleigh Wedgwood, Eduard Müller, and Walter W. Skeat, whose opinions we naturally consult in such cases, did not even include it. The reason for this invidious reservation is not clear to me. An association of brash with break and brittle comes to mind at once, and the sound-imitating role of br– also suggests itself, but shortcuts are dangerous. Brittle is an adjective, obliquely allied to the Old English verb brēotan “to break.” I said obliquely, because a direct tie from brittle is not to brēotan but to bryttan, a verb formed from the same root but on a different grade of ablaut. One is disappointed to read that the origin of bryttan is also unknown. Doesn’t the onomatopoetic br– give us a clue? It does, but the rest of the word has to be accounted for too. What is worse, brittle is not related to break. The Old English for break was brecan. It shares only the suggestive part br– with bryttan.

Yet the feeling prevails that brash, break, and brittle somehow belong together. This need not mean that they have a common origin. We notice time and again that words derived from the same root part ways, and only an etymologist can detect how the story began, while words coming from different, though similar-sounding roots form a family like so many children from an orphanage: they wear the same uniform, go to the same school, adopt the same manner of speaking, and begin to look like members of one family (in the past, I have more than once used the image of an orphanage and of a cluster of rootless mushrooms growing on a stump). Many br– words illustrate this situation, and it need not surprise us that an ingenious German linguist has written several articles and a book about br– words. However, here we should still concentrate on etymology. The first hypothesis will be familiar to those who read this blog with some regularity. I often refer to Jacob Grimm’s suggestion that a historical linguist should try to find the same etymon of the homonyms occurring in old languages. Several English words sound as or like brash. Are thy offspring of the same parent?

Brash, in at least one of its meanings, sounds very much like French brèche “breach,” but the French word is of Germanic origin, even though Middle English borrowed breach from Old French. Such words as arose in Germanic, traveled to French, and later returned “home” (indeed not to Franconia but to England) are rather numerous. If the original English word for “breach” had survived, it would have sounded, depending on the dialect, as brich (in the Standard), as brech (in Kent), and bruch (in the southwest). However, French brèche could at most be responsible for brash “a mass of fragments; rubbish” (Wright mentions “the valueless clippings of hedge; twigs; small stones, etc.”). Surprisingly, we find Engl. brush “loppings of tress” (compare Wright’s “the valueless clippings of hedges, twigs”!); thicket,” especially well-known from brushwood. The final consonant (sh instead of ch) is again due to the fact that brush is a fourteenth-century borrowing from French, allegedly, a reflex of an old Romance noun. But the similarity is astounding, and one wonders whether the traditional etymology is correct. Couldn’t brash be a variant of brush?

A breach is a breach, whether in the wall or of data, Romance or Germanic.
A breach is a breach, whether in the wall or of data, Romance or Germanic.

Such vowel alternations are common in dialects. Even in Standard Modern English we run into amusing cases of vocalic leapfrog. Since we are in the br-room, I may mention brolly for umbrella. This is a piece of British university slang, but slang often serves as a lab of sound change. By contrast, freshman is an American word. Yet someone, obedient to the same incomprehensible impulse, turned it into frosh. Still another “expressive” slangy alternation is the twentieth-century monster wodge for wedge. Perhaps our readers can cite more examples of the same game. Be that as it may, in dialects such alternations, usually called secondary, or false, ablaut, are frequent, and I see no reason why brush and brash, both denoting “tree clippings,” could not be a pair like fresh- and frosh. All of it is mere guessing, to quote Skeat’s favorite pronouncement. Gaelic Irish has bras “hasty, impulsive” and brais “a fit, convulsion,” but, as always, when dealing with similar forms in Irish and English, one cannot be certain which came first. It seems that the English words have safer antecedents than their Irish analogs.

Leapfrog is a favorite game not only of children but also of sounds.
Leapfrog is a favorite game not only of children but also of sounds.

Still another complicating factor in the search for the origin of the adjective brash is the existence of its synonym and near homonym rash, a respectable Germanic and English word. Considering that br– is sound-symbolic, couldn’t rash be turned into brash to add vigor to the adjective? In dealing with Indo-European, scholars constantly play such games, but the closer they approach the modern language, the more reluctant they become and try to avoid such “rash” conjectures. Once I dared a similar suggestion about Old Engl. brōga “dread.” Its origin is unknown, but there was ōga (a word with the same meaning, a cousin of Modern Engl. awe: a cousin, because awe is a borrowing from Scandinavian), and I made bold to write that brōga was ōga, with br– added to make the word sound more frightening. Ferdinand Holthausen, a cautious etymologist, stated in the last edition of his etymological dictionary that brash, which he glossed as “to break” (!), is a blend of break and clash or crash. He partly followed the OED.

It appears that the choices facing us are many, and all of them are bad. We’ll see what we can do about the origin of brash in two weeks. Next week’s post will be devoted to the January gleanings.

Images: (1) Cat, Kitten by rebel1965, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Retaining wall breach” by Hefin Richards, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (3) Stature, PC by succo, Public Domain via Pixabay (4) “Bremerhaven Thiele 3” by Uwe Barghaan, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons Featured image: Plateau, scrub by 4939, Public Domain via Pixabay.

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