No one likes boasters. People are expected to be modest (especially when they have nothing to show). For that reason, the verbs meaning “to boast” are usually “low” or slangy (disparaging) and give etymologists grief and sufficient reason to be modest. They tend to surface in print late and lack good cognates. For instance, one of the Old English words for “boast” was bōian, but dictionaries do not connect them, though the phonetic and semantic affinity between the two seems rather obvious. It is customary to compare bōian and Latin fāri “to speak,” both allegedly going back to the ancient root bha. If they are indeed related, Engl. fatuous “stupid and devoid of substance,” from Latin, can be related to fatus, the perfect participle of fāri, with the development from “something said” to “a silly thing said” (such an etymology, with a slight variation, has already been proposed in the recent past, and I believe it is not an exercise in fatuity). Another Old English verb for “boast” has become Modern yelp.
However, bōian might have had no “respectable” cognates and been a sound-imitative verb, a formation like Engl. boo (as in “he cannot say boo to a goose” or in “to boo a performer”). The earliest recorded sense of the verb boast, which surfaced in texts only in the thirteenth century, was “to threaten.” Boast is believed to be of French (Anglo-French) origin, but since its etymon is unknown, we end up exactly where we began. Could boast be bo-, as in bōian, to which a pseudo-suffix –st was added, on the analogy of roast, toast, and the like? (Incidentally, –st is a common Germanic suffix, as is seen in Engl. cost, rest, and many words outside English.)
Finally, it would be tempting to connect boast with boisterous, whose original sense was “bulky.” Boastful people talk big, so that the connection looks moderately plausible. Boisterous is a by-form of the now archaic boistous, another word of unknown origin. As we can see, wherever we turn, not a single word has a pedigree worth boasting of or about. Some have initial puzzling consonant groups. Thus, in Gothic (an old Germanic language) and Russian, the verb for “boast” begins with hv ~ hw, though hwopjan and khvastat’ cannot possibly be related.
To brag is even worse than to boast, because bragging presupposes pompous, arrogant, cocky boasting. Brag began its life in English as an adjective (“bold, spirited”; “boastful”), now lost. Phrases like my brag race horse are modern. The verb does not predate the fourteenth century. Its origin is predictably unknown. Similar br-verbs exist in Celtic, French, Dutch, and Scandinavian. If all of them are sound-imitative, with reference to noise (like, possibly, break), they might have arisen in all those languages independently. Nor is it excluded that some are borrowings. Slang (and that also holds for medieval slang) is often international, and people brag and boast everywhere in more or less the same way. Since the Dutch verb was attested much later than the English one, it could hardly have been the sought-for lender. The same holds for Celtic, but French, on the face o it is a thinkable source.
For quite some time, the best etymologists derived the French verb from Danish. At present, there is no enthusiasm for this hypothesis, and indeed it has little appeal. Instead of explicating many phonetic details, which the interested reader may find in Skeat, I’ll offer my own derivation of brag. It is as shaky as all the previous ones, but has the attraction of novelty.
Close to brag, at least in our dictionaries, is Old Engl. brēgan “to frighten,” which Junius, one of our earliest English etymologists, compared with brag. According to the rules of ablaut, the ruthless tyrant of etymology to which so many lines have been devoted in this blog, short a (as in brag) and long e (ē, as in brēgan) do not belong together, but ē in brēgan goes back to long œ, the umlaut of ō, as is seen from the noun brōga “terror, danger; prodigy,” and ō is a legitimate partner of a. It will be remembered that the earliest recorded sense of boast was also “to threaten.” If my hypothesis is correct, bragging, perhaps a word of the military vocabulary, referred not to noise but to fear or rather to attempts at intimidation.
Among other things, the origin of brag proved so hard to discover because the word ends in –g. Old English final –g regularly turned into –w in the Middle period, but stayed intact in Scandinavian. That is why a look at such etymological doublets as draw and drag tells us immediately that draw is the continuation of an Old English form, while drag is a borrowing from Scandinavian. Some English words do indeed have modern reflexes ending in –g: such are dog, stag, frog, and a few others, but originally they had long g. I suspect that the verb brag existed in Old English and had the form braggan, even though the complex brag– first turned up in our written monuments only in the thirteenth century, and all we have is the Middle English verb braggen.
French braguer “to vaunt, brag” and brague “ostentation” were recorded about three centuries later than brag, so that, like their Dutch analog, they are not good candidates for the etymon of the English adjective and verb. Braggart is indeed a borrowing of French braggard, but it reached English only in the sixteenth century. Spencer’s word braggadocio is of the same age. Once again chronology militates against the borrowing of brag.
If brag is of Scandinavian provenance (older books said “provenience”), it may be related to Old Icelandic bragnar “men” (and, by the usual extension, “warriors”), bragr “chief, prince,” its homonym bragr “poetry,” and Bragi, the name of the god of poetry, of the earliest skald (a court poet of old), and later a “regular” proper name. However, poets are not braggarts and have never been looked upon as such. The etymology of the words meaning “poet” tells us that poets were thought to be famous for revealing things, for stitching words together, or for “finding” plots and words (both troubadour and trouvère mean “finder’; Old English and Old Icelandic poets, as we read, also “found” words and plots). The function of some poets was seemingly to mock. But nowhere do we find epic or any other ancient poets renowned for bragging. I am afraid that we should leave the origin of Bragi in limbo (not that the conjectures on this subject are lacking). What matters is that this word could not have yielded Engl. brag. Bragr “prince” is perhaps a better candidate, for princes were commanders and could “frighten” or “threaten” their enemies. But the origin of bragr “chief” and its Old English look-alike brego (the same meaning) is unknown, and, according to the ironclad law of semantic reconstruction, one obscure word should never be used for explaining the origin of another word, equally obscure.
Rather probably, brag is an Old English formation. Quite early it seems to have become part of the soldiers’ slang and infiltrated Dutch, French, and Celtic. It was “low” when it was coined and has never lost its vulgar overtones.
Image credits: (1) “Frog” by Couleur, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) “Deer” by diane616, Public Domain via Pixabay. (3) “Weimaraner puppy” by Cedric Clooth, Public Domain via Pixabay. (4 and Featured) “Peresv b” by Viktor Vasnetsov, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (5) FR 854, folio 49r, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.