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From broke to broker: following the tortuous path to truth

Broke (as in I am broke) is a variant of the past participle broken. No one seems to know why this n-less form has survived. The manuals I have consulted pretend that the problem does not exist. Written, chosen, spoken, swollen, beholden, and even the American form gotten have preserved their final n. Only broke competes with broken. Yet today, our main question is whether broker is some variant of breaker. Unlike so many nouns, adjectives, verbs, and conjunctions I have discussed in this blog, broker is no longer a word “of unknown (uncertain, contested) origin,” but even though the riddle has been solved, it is instructive to see how after many false moves the solution was eventually found.

It is hard to decide to what extent non-linguists (the majority of the world!) are interested in both learning the truth and in following the tortuous path to it. To me, the history of etymologists’ wanderings reads like a thriller: so many naive and clever suggestions, such a blend of ignorance and ingenuity! And those who have followed this blog for some time will remember how often I can only offer the shortest history of the question, rather than a solution. Moreover, we’ll never know the origin of many words, so that the end of the way may be a blind wall.

Broke but unbroken.
Photo via Pexels (public domain)

Broker surfaced in English texts in the fourteenth century, that is, in the days of Chaucer, and this fact alone suggests that such a business term is more probably French than native English, but the temptation to connect it with break misled numerous researchers, though, regardless of our views on securities and usury, what do or did brokers, stockbrokers, and pawnbrokers “break”? Below are a few samples of the earliest guesses: brokers, one reads, received their name after break, because only bankrupts were in former ages permitted to be of this trade (!). Or is broker a contraction of procurer? A much more reasonable hypothesis connected broker with French brocanter “to deal in second-hand goods.” We find this etymology in James Stormonth’s otherwise excellent English dictionary.

Middle Dutch brak “worthless” and Russian brak “damaged goods” (both eventually derived from Dutch breken “to break”) have also been suggested as the etymons of broker. Those were unprofitable hypotheses. The adventurous but usually reasonable Hensleigh Wedgwood devoted a whole page in his etymological dictionary to a tie between broker and Russian brak and its cognates elsewhere. Wedgewood’s learned contemporaries were so puzzled by his hypothesis that they at best cited it, without even minimal discussion, and William W. Skeat only wrote: “I dissent from Wedgwood’s opinion.” Yet this etymology survived all four editions of Wedgwood’s dictionary. Scholars are stubborn people.

The German for “broker” is Makler (again from Dutch; the root is related to English make). Attempts to find a semantic bridge from broker to Makler also proved futile. Even English brock “badger,” about which so much was written in the post on brocard (25 October 2023), has been pressed into service. Skeat, at a loss for a better solution, referred the root of broker to the Dutch cognate of English brook “to enjoy; put up, endure” (both Dutch bruiken and German brauchen “to use” are related to English brook; the verb seems to be obsolescent, to use a rather rare and bulky adjective).

This etymology is wrong, and eventually Skeat conceded defeat, but he did not like to surrender (scholars are stubborn!), and in the last edition of his dictionary, he, almost grudgingly, accepted the truth. However, in the 1911 A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, he wrote everything clearly: broker derives from Middle English brocour “an agent, witness of a transaction,” from Anglo-French brocour, an agent; originally a “broacher” or “seller of wine.” Late Latin broccātor “one who broaches,” from Late Latin bocca, that is, “spike” (see brooch). A few other late dictionaries say the same: “Middle English brocour ‘pedlar [that is, peddler], pawnbroker’; loanword from Old French brocour, brockeor ‘tapster who retails wine from the tap’”—and refer the reader to the words given under broach. This last reference is misleading (see below). The connection between broach and selling wine was first established in the OED.

“Long, long afterward, in an oak / I found the arrow, still unbroke.”
Photo via Unsplash (public domain)

This is all very good, but we are still left wondering how a seller of wine reached the status of a broker. Fortunately, the answer is not unknown. Throughout the Middle Ages, the duties of a broker, that is, a person who negotiated deals, were closely connected with serving guests and dispensing wine (the whole of the “entertainment industry”). The same holds for the medieval “factor” (French facteur). Curiously, French facteur “postman/mailman” reminds one of courtier “broker” and “one doing a lot of running around” (so explained by Leo Spitzer). Thus, though from an etymological point of view, a broker is a seller of wine, his duties went far beyond what his name suggests. The path was from “taverner, tapster, publican” to “middleman.” In the heading you saw an ideal blend of a tapster and a potential broker. (Note that in Roman and biblical days, a publican collected taxes, rather than owning a pub!).

Nor is the distant origin of the Anglo-French abrocour (1285) a riddle. It was solved by A. L. Mayhew in a contribution to Notes and Queries (11/VI, 1912, p. 126). The root broc, he suggested, “is of Semitic origin,… from a Hebrew source, the Hebrew word having been introduced into Western Europe through the commercial activity of the Moors of Spain.” Spanish alboróque meant “a gratuity given to one that makes up a bargain between two, in the nature of Brokeridge…. The word boroc traveled to England by Provence, and the Hebrew word bêrêk ‘blessing’ is related.” The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966) mentions the Semitic hypothesis but stays short of endorsing it. I don’t think there is any need to be cautious here.

Clever brokers sometimes cause breakers in the ocean of finance.
(L: Pexels – public domain. R: Wikimedia Commons – public domain.)

Now back to broach and brooch. If the French source of broker should be sought in Hebrew and if, therefore, it has nothing to do with piercing, then there is no connection between it and English nouns broach and brooch, both of which are derivatives of Old French broche “spit.” Its source must have been brocca “spike.” It is a mere vagary of Modern English spelling that broach and brooch are spelled differently. (This is not the best place to broach the subject of English spelling. I hope it will be reformed some time in the future.) The idea of a sharp object underlying the root of broach and brooch can also be detected in broccoli, brochure, and bracket.

To return to the beginning: so many “issues”! Broke (as in go broke) without final n; publicans becoming middlemen; serving wine without piercing the barrel; broach confused with brooch, and travels from Hebrew to Romance and finally to English. Such is etymology at its best. As a true broker, I say “Enjoy!”

Featured image by Robert Wallace via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Broek means fraction in Danish. Is that relevant?

  2. Adam Apt

    I shouldn’t say that ‘brook’, put up, endure, is obsolescent. It survives, though only barely, in its negation, as in ‘does not brook’ or ‘brooks no’. I used the latter form while speaking just a few days ago.

  3. suohj

    Everything from all sources about the etymology of broker remains uncertain. Brocour is Anglo-Norman French. This info is quite thought provoking. It has no equivalent form in Continental French, which suggests the immediate source may be Provencal (in turn from Hebrew as some proposed), or Germanic (possibly Dutch as I think), or other sources.

  4. suohj

    After so many scenarios fail to make us sure about the origin of broker, I believe it’s time we return to the aboriginal, most simple gut feeling. We are all deceived, tovarishes. The word broker comes from an unattested Mediterranean Sea trade lingo term *pro curo, based on Latin procuro “I take care of”. The broker’s job is to take care of what you entrust him/her with, mostly purchases and sales, but also other matters. The most compelling proof for this hypothesis is the typical spelling of its immediate source Anglo-Norman French: brocour (Some also mention Middle French broggour). Why? Is -our a typical agent suffix in Middle Norman dialect? This most likely harks back to Latin -curo in procuro. As for initial bi- instead of p-, it’s easy to explain. Maybe due to the garbling nature of lingo, argot, or slang term creation, or it may come to Norman through the intermediacy of Germanic. In German this happened often Middle to early Modern period. For example, Dollar (with intial d-) comes German Taler, Thaler. Conversely, praegen (to mint) supposedly comes from brechen (to break, i.e., to gravieren, to cut into metal plates in making coins).

    Latin procuro fits all scenarios and historical citations. Small trader, peddlar, wine seller, etc., all miss the point.

    As for Spanish alboroque, Late Latin abroccator, etc., they may also be coined after Latin procuro.

  5. suohj

    I just learned that Arabic has no [p] sound. It changes the [p] of foreign words into [b], e.g. Gr. Paulas becomes Bulus in Arabic. This explains why Lat. procuro became Sp. alboroque. The definite article al- was added to make it look more Arabic. Therefore the initial b- in broker is caused by Arabic transcription of Latin procuro, which happened before AD 1000. Our word broker started life then around Mediterranean Sea and went all the way up north to Provence, to Normandy, to England.

  6. suohj

    But, if ANFr. brocour “small trader” really existed, it may be from Du. brok, Ger. Brocken “a small piece”, related to break, Ger. brechen, also Fr. brocanter “to trade in used goods, esp. pieces of art and old curiosities” (original meaning “to buy in small quantities, piece by piece). Can this be the origin of borker? How can a “small trader” acquire the status of middlemanship? There is no easy answer. For “wine seller” it is even more difficult.

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