Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

English “brand” and the etymology of “sword”: the denouement

With this post behind me, I’ll finally be able to beat my sword into a workable plowshare. Today, the immediate theme is the history of the word brand and its cognates, but it is also a springboard to an important conclusion. This is what we find in our texts about the first noun in the title. Old Engl. brand, also spelled as brond (a ~ o is a typical variation before n), meant “fire, flame” and “sword, weapon.” The sense “sword” was rare, but the Beowulf poet knew it (in the poem, brond is a synonym of beado-mēce “war sword” (mēce will be familiar to those who have read the post for May 27, 2020). Therefore, no compelling reason exists to believe that we are dealing with a borrowing of Old Norse brandr. In Old Norse, brandr meant “brand, a charred piece of wood; hearth” and “sword.” There was one more sense, to which we’ll return later. In modern English poetry, brand “sword” occurs too, but there it is a deliberate archaism.

The origin of brand “fire” (the word’s basic sense) is transparent. The Old Germanic form of burn was brennan. It meant “to burn,” as in wood burns (here burn is intransitive). For the transitive meaning, as in to burn wood, a related verb existed. As time went on, the two verbs began to sound so similar that eventually they merged. The same process happened in German (brennen). In brennan, r precedes the vowel, whereas in burn, it follows it (the spelling with u is late). This change, a kind of phonetic leapfrog called metathesis, is common, especially when r is involved. The old form can be guessed from the noun brentgoose, that is, “burnt goose”; the name probably refers to the bird’s variegated plumage.

A branta, a bird with a burning etymology. Image: Kaww by Michael. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

The verb brennan was strong, that is, it changed its root vowel by ablaut, the way rise ~ rose, bind ~ bound, speak ~ spoke, run ~ ran, shake ~ shook, and many others do today. Its past singular form was bran-. From the same root the noun bran-d was formed with the help of the suffix d (or, to cite its archaic shape, ð, which denotes the sound as in Modern Engl. the).

What substances burn? Wood does, and bones do: consider bonfire, from bone-fire. But English also has burn “stream, brook” (hence the family name Burns), and water quells fire! A homonym? Opinions differ. German Brunnen ~ Born “a well” has the same root, and so does German Brunst “rut, heat” (said about animals). Heat is certainly connected with burning, and I see nothing wrong in the old idea that words like Brunnen and Engl. burn “stream” initially referred to a spring, source, or fountain, where water springs with great force. Especially typical is German Brandung “surf, breakers”; it has the same root. Water and fire may form strange, seemingly unnatural alliances. The form from which Engl. seethe developed meant “to boil,” and today we still seethe in anger, but the related Old Engl. noun sēaþ meant “lake, pond” (þ had the value of th in Modern Engl. three). The old past participle of seethe can still be detected in sodden, but it means “saturated with liquid”! A raging fire and a violent torrent arouse similar associations: they are violent, they ravage and, metaphorically speaking, burn.

Gushing water quells fire. Image by Mark Cross. CC by 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Where does brand(r) “sword” come in? The regular readers of this blog will remember that I often refer to Jacob Grimm’s principle: “While dealing with old languages, homonyms should be, wherever possible, reduced to the same etymon.” What follows is not my idea, but I am happy to embrace it. Brand(r) “sword” must have received its name from the way it flashed in wielding (not just in the light), swinging, brandishing. Brandish has been used above not for the sake of a pun. Though the verb reached English from French, the Romance root must be of Germanic origin. It is not for nothing that swords in Germanic poetry are constantly described as shining, blazing, and flashing, and there must be good reason the motif of a flaming sword occurs in the oral tradition of almost the whole world. We remember the flaming sword that was placed at the gate of Paradise after the banishment of Adam and Eve and the sword of the Old Scandinavian giant Surtr, who in the last battle (Ragnarök) burned the whole world. The distance between the concepts of gleaming (flashing) and burning is easy to cross.

But there is one more brandr! It denotes beautifully painted planks on the Viking ship’s prow or over the door of a living house. The only attempt to connect it with the other nouns, examined above (allegedly, from the sense “a burning stock” or simply “stock”), does not carry conviction, but it is not silly. Do boards (planks) have anything to do with swords? They do! Reread the post for May 27, referred to above. Do you remember Dutch zwaard “sword” and (!) “leeboard of a ship” and Hans Sperber’s much ridiculed idea that the original sword had the form of a smooth board? The proximity of Latin sorbus “service tree” led him astray, and he suggested that some of the ancient swords had been made of wood. I wrote that archaeology does not confirm this idea, and indeed, wood neither flashes nor gleams, but, in anticipation of this post, I defended Sperber’s reference to smoothness and equated smoothness with shining. In light of Dutch zwaard, the reference to “board, plank” can be easily reconciled with the reference to “sword.” Last time, I forgot to mention Frisian swurd “sword; lee board.” Whether the Frisian sense is a borrowing from Dutch or the other way around is immaterial. The influence on both from Old Norse is highly improbable, for in Old Icelandic, only brandr, but not sverð, had both meanings.

A violent stream suggests the idea of passion and burning. Public domain via Public Domain Pictures.
This is one of many flaming swords. Giant with the Flaming Sword by John Charles Dollman. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Latin ferrum “sword” got its name from the material of which it was made (iron). Another “prompt” was, evidently, smoothness, sheen, polished (gleaming) surface. With brandr as part in the charade, everything falls into place. Swer-ð and bran-d (r is an ending) have the same structure: a root and a well-known suffix, which, for example, also occurs in wor-d (the root is related to verb-um). Both acquired their meaning for the same reason. But there is a difference. The meaning of the root of brand– is known, but what is swer-? Viktor Levitsky, also mentioned two weeks ago, compared sword ~ sward, and German Schwert ~ Schwarte. Schwarte means “bacon rind, crust.” The etymological identity of Engl. sward and German Schwarte is obvious, but Levitsky ascribed the meaning “rough” to its root and traced it to the idea of cutting; hence, he concluded, sword had once meant “a cutting weapon.” His parallels (from “cut” to “rough”) are fine, but the main thing about the sword’s surface, as discussed here, is its smoothness, the only common distinctive feature of a blade and any polished or even surface, such as a sward, among many others.

The ultimate etymology of sword remains undiscovered, but at least we know how that Germanic weapon got its name. It gleamed, it shone, because the steel was smooth, and so did brand. As often in etymology, what looks like an insoluble riddle in some word can be solved with the help of a more transparent synonym. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet compared the semantic history of brand– and swerð-, so that comments will be especially welcome.

Feature image credit: Thanksgiving Bonfire by Bart Everson. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Vivian Ramalingam

    As a fun addendum, the story is that a Dutch wine merchant wanted to save shipping costs, so he reduced the volume of his stock with heat (boiling? evaporation?), so that it could be reconstituted with water on the receiving end of the voyage. The process did not work, but it was supposedly the invention of brandy. Your story suggests to me that I should brandish a brandy spritzer after dinner tonight. ;)

  2. Stan Smith (yes!)

    Is a brand not something that is burned, ie, beaten into shape in a smithy from an iron rod that has been heated to White heat in a furnace?

  3. Christopher Burd

    A minor correction: þ and ð were interchangeable in Old English. For example, the Beowulf manuscript intermixes the spellings þa and ða (‘then’) in the first three pages. Initially and (I think) finally, they both represented the TH in ‘ether’; between vowels, the TH in ‘either’. In Old English, these sounds were positional variants of the same phoneme. The distinction you suggest is valid for Old Norse, modern Icelandic, and the original phonetic transcription used in the Oxford English Dictionary.

  4. Rudy Troike

    It is interesting to note that “brandish his sword” is a tautology, with “brandish” evidently (per my trusty M-W) a Germanic form borrowed into French and re-borrowed into English (a bit like “ward” and “guard”).

    fww, my M-W also gives the first (earliest) meaning of “brand” as “a charred piece of wood”, and cites the compound “firebrand” from the 13th century to designate a still-burning piece of wood.


  5. Ian Davidson

    When a lee board is a centre board and is designed narrow, it is called a dagger board

  6. Adam Czajka

    It is simple… sword comes from – rough like burnt wood. It is IE in origin or even older.
    Cognate are German, Schwarz, OEng. sweart, and Polish zwarty (“shrunk”, compact).

  7. Adam Czajka

    Compacted or rough like… that is

Leave a Comment

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