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Worms, the Rhine, Germany, 1890

Another hopelessly obscure word: brocard

The title of this blog post harkens back to the post of three weeks ago (4 October 2023) on the word cowan. The post called forth a few responses, and I decided to risk telling another story of the same type. Some words are so rare that few people know and even fewer study them. In my comprehensive bibliography of English etymology, which features dozens of papers and notes on local words, archaic words, forgotten curses, and obscure slang, a few “outcasts” appear with a single citation devoted to them. Such is, for example, brocard, the subject of a 1948 article by John Webster Spargo (Speculum 23, 1948, 472-76), a distinguished American philologist (1896-1956). Only the opening page of the article is available online, while I, naturally, have the entire text in my office. Below, I’ll retell this paper and add a few comments, along with a tentative conclusion.

Brocard (I am copying the definition from The Century Dictionary) is “a law maxim; in Modern French, a taunt, jeer, raillery.” According to the original OED, “brocard, akin to Medieval Latin brocarda,” was a name given to the “sentences of Burchard[965-1025], bishop of Worms in the eleventh century, who compiled twenty books of Regulae ecclesiasticae.” The bishop, not the word, goes back to the eleventh century. A name like Burchardus might perhaps be twisted into Brocardus. Words from names (so-called eponyms) are numerous. Such are not only sandwich and cardigan but also the likes of spoonerism and philippic. However, as Spargo observes, the Latinity of Burchardus is a very far cry from the neat compact Latinity of legal maxims, so that the way from Burchardus’s name to brocard is far from obvious, and here we should agree with him. There is enough reason to look again at the origin of this word.

Friedrich Carl von Savigny (1779-1861), the great expert in Roman Law and one of the teachers of Jacob Grimm, objected to the association of Burchard with brocard “solely because of similarity in sound” and concluded that the origin of the word is very uncertain. Spargo mentioned a half-dozen “sportive guesses” about the derivation of Brocard, without citing them. No doubt, those guesses are nonsense, but I am still sorry that he passed them by. Knowing wrong and fanciful etymologies is useful, in order not to repeat them and to warn the unwary against taking them seriously. Spargo’s main point is that reducing the immense mass of Roman laws to manageable size was a gigantic enterprise. The ancient authorities, he says, were weighed and compared, so that contradictions could be resolved and harmonized. Those digests came to be in part the foundations of the cannon law of the Church. And this circumstance inspired Spargo’s etymology: “the basic idea of diverseness of origins, of versatility and variety in beginnings, remained, I take it, a major actor in man’s thought about canon law.”

A mildly variegated badger, sharp nose and all.
By Caroline Legg via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Thus, Spargo suggested that the motivation for coining the word brocard was the idea of diverseness and variety: “There is evidence that the sparkling examples of the Digests was not lost upon the compilers of cannon law, because appended to the standard edition of the canon law we find a collection of 88 ‘regulae juris’ [Rules of Law], many of which are very like maxims in their terse, compact Latinity.” According to his hypothesis, the inspiration came from the root broc-, seen in the ancient Irish word for “badger.” The Old Irish name of this animal was brocc. It reached England and yielded dialectal brock (the same meaning), a word many English speakers still understand. The main reference in this ingenious etymology is to the animal’s variegated hairs: “It is likely that ancient Celts used such a term for the badger because of the variegated colors of the animal’s fur, Welsh broc meaning ‘of a mixed color’, and Modern Irish broc meaning ‘grey, speckled’.” The origin of this animal name has not been determined to everybody’s satisfaction. According to a competing hypothesis, the word brocc “badger” owes its existence not to the animal’s variegated hair but to its sharp nose. We’ll presently return to the form of the badger’s nose. 

A page from the medieval Icelandic legal code Grágás. No fully convincing expansion of the title exists.
Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

I suspect that Spargo’s guess has little chance of acceptance. Too many intermediate steps have been passed over. His main premise is indeed acceptable. For instance, great Icelandic manuscripts often have enigmatic names, the most famous of them being Edda. References to animal names are common in this context. Thus, the legal code of Medieval Iceland is called Grágás “Gray Goose.” But if we follow Spargo, we have to agree that those who coined the word brocard were inspired by a Celtic animal name (why were they?) and added the suffix –ard to broc. My experience has taught me that the more complicated an etymology, the greater the chance that it is wrong. Savigny’s doubts were justified. Yet even the strained derivation of brocard from Burchard looks more probable than the derivation from broc.

In this history, several more details should not be overlooked. As noted, French brocard, from Medieval Latin brocardus, means not only “maxim” but also “joke, jibe.” (The Medieval Latin noun must have been formed from the French one!) French etymologists suggest that the second sense (“joke”) appeared under the influence of the verb broquer (a dialectal form of brocher) “to wisecrack, quip” but hesitatingly refer the sense “maxim” to the bishop’s name. In the fifteenth century, two Old French words were recorded: brocard “maxim” and brocard “deer.” English brocket “a stag in its second year with its first horns, which resemble a short dagger” (naturally, from French) is its descendant. Close by, is English brocade. Incidentally, English broach and brooch (also from French) go back to the same root meaning “sharp, prickly.” Modern French brocard “maxim” and brocard “deer” are, naturally, listed in dictionaries as two different words, the more so as brocard “maxim” was recorded about a hundred years earlier than brocard “deer.” Yet their affinity is unquestionable.

I suggest that there was a Medieval Latin word brocardus, mirroring Old French brocard. It first must have meant “something sharp, ‘acute’” and soon developed the sense “something ‘cute’.” By that time, Burchard’s maxims had existed for about four centuries. They were terse and pointed (that is, very much to the point). The French word suited them to a tee. Perhaps the similarity between the word and the bishop’s name also occurred to people in the late Middle Ages, as it did to modern etymologists, but in principle, Savigny seems to have been justified in distrusting an occasional “similarity in sound.” 

This is a brocket, a possible linguistic relative of our brocard.
By Bernard Dupont via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Not a legal historian and not a French etymologist, I’ll be glad to hear objections to my reconstruction and my attempt to raise the word brocard from its obscurity and to leave the bishop in peace. He worked in Worms, and it was in Worms that the first half of The Lay of the Nibelungen played itself out. You will see a picture of modern Worms in the heading. Unfortunately, no image of the famous bishop has come down to us. Worms is a Celtic name, and so is brocc, but brocard is probably not.

Featured image: Worms, the Rhine, Germany, 1890 (public domain)

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