Thursday, 31 October 2013

Britain - What It Is & What It Ain't

The island of Great Britain
Satellite image by NASA


[Old English Breoten, Breten, Bryten from Latin Brittones (see BRITON);
later forms from Old French Bretaigne (modern -agne), from Latin Brittan(n)ia from Brit(t)anni, corresponding to Greek Bret(t)anoi, Pret(t)anoi.]

More fully (especially as a political term) Great Britain.
As a geographical and political term: (the main island and smaller offshore islands making up)
England, Scotland, and Wales, sometimes with the Isle of Man.
Also (as a political term) the United Kingdom, Britain and its dependencies, (formerly) the British Empire.

Note: Britain, after the Old English period, was for long used only as a historical term, but in 1604 James I and VI was proclaimed 'King of Great Britain'
and this name was adopted for the then United Kingdom at the Union in 1707.

Also: obsolete Britainer noun = BRITON noun L16-E19

The British people have many curious traditions: warm beer, cricket, bamboozling foreigners with bizarre accents and divvy words, and throwing cucumber sandwiches at passing cars. However, one of their greatest joys is utterly befuddling the world as to what their country is actually called. In fact, so culturally ingrained is this heritage of bafflement and complication that most British people are themselves unsure what country they're from: is it Great Britain, Britain, the United Kingdom or (and be careful with this one) England? Therefore, to end this long and cruel history of political misdirection, Lexicolatry is going to clear this up - right here, right now, once and for all. Never again will a Briton hesitate with uncertainty when asked where he is from, or have to endure the bemused glances of immigration officers when they flounder over their country of origin: "I'm from Britain ... no ... wait ... the United ... umm ... England. No ... it's ... the United Britain of Great England. That's it. That's definitely it." So here we go:

Great Britain is an island, northwest of France and to the east of Ireland. Great Britain comprises of three countries, none of which are independent states: England, Scotland and Wales. Their capitals are London, Edinburgh and Cardiff respectively, and although their state as a whole has its centre of government in London, England, both Scotland and Wales have certain levels of devolved power. However, the important part to remember is that Great Britain is an island.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(with helpful arrows showing its constituent countries)
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is usually shortened to the United Kingdom or just the UK, is a sovereign state. The UK comprises of the countries of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and also Northern Ireland, which is a country on the north-eastern end of the island of Ireland. Again, Northern Ireland is not an independent state, but has a certain level of devolved power with its capital in Belfast. The capital of the UK is London, over which reigns the British monarch as Head of State and also the Prime Minister.

So, that wasn't so difficult, right?

  • Great Britain (or Britain) = The island comprising of England, Scotland & Wales
  • The UK = The sovereign state comprising of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland 

Of course, Brits don't like to make it that simple, and matters are often confused by an interchangeability in the terminology (at least in popular usage). Therefore, Britain is often used to refer to the UK and vice versa, and foreigners often think it's all just England, a mistake that understandably causes some consternation to those from the UK, but who define themselves as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or Irish. That being said, there are all kinds of cultural and political sensitives at play, and these definitions reflect the official legal and political status, rather than any particular political leaning or slant, and none of this is even attempting to tackle the complicated nature of Crown Dependencies, British Overseas Territories or Commonwealth Nations. Phew.

Union Jack, Union Flag
The flag of the UK
(not England)
Are you from Britain?

Are you not from Britain?

Have you been similarly confused by the terminology?

Do please comment below.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Brink - The Edgiest Post Yet

Brink, Brinkmanship,


Noun. Middle English.
[Old Norse brekka slope corresponding to Middle Low German brink edge of a field,
(brow of) a hill (whence German dialectical Brink hill),
Middle Dutch brinc (Dutch brink grassland), of unknown origin.]

1 The margin or bank of a body of water;
generally an edge, a margin, a border. (Now usually only when steep, passing into sense 3.) ME

2 figurative. The verge of some state, event, action, time, etc.; the point of being, doing, etc. ME

3 The edge, margin, or border of a steep place, such as a precipice, chasm, etc. LME

4 The brim of a vessel. obsolete except dialectical. LME

brinkmanship noun a policy or the art of advancing to the very brink of some action (especially war) but not engaging in it. M20

Did you ever stand at the very edge of a long drop, easing yourself up onto your tiptoes and leaning forward ever so slightly? Suddenly, you feel your body start to tip as you overbalance; you drop your heels, gasp with relief, and savour the thrill of almost having gone over the brink. And then, hungry for more adrenaline, your eyes again wander over the edge, and you start to learn forward once more. You don't want to fall, but you do want the thrill of nearly falling.

Taking things to the very brink, and seeing just how close you can get without tipping over, is common game in world affairs. "Oh they're always threatening that!" How many times did you hear that during North Korea's bout of nuclear brinkmanship during 2013? It's true - North Korea is always threatening to rain bloody destruction and annihilation down on the US and all of its allies, and it might genuinely be part of a well-choreographed game to win concessions and discourage aggression. However, as with all games of brinkmanship, and like standing on your tiptoes next to a sheer drop, it's all well and good until something goes wrong. And as true brinkmanship has to involve taking things to the brink of something truly awful, something that no side truly wants, the stakes are always unthinkably high. In the case of North Korea, while an all-out war with the US, South Korea and Japan would inevitably lead to its destruction as a state, the response of its antiquated but staggeringly vast military machine (a machine so vast that a pictorial representation of its assets took a minute to load on my laptop) would be horrific, and that's without factoring in the unpredictable response of its ally China.

Do you know of any other examples of brinkmanship?

Are you on the brink of something yourself?

Do please leave your edgiest comments below.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Brimstone - One Hell of a Word

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur
Photo by Andrea Abbot Photography


[Late Old English brynstan, probably from bryne (= Old Norse bruni) burning (formed as BURN verb) + STONE noun.]

1(a) Sulphur; especially (otherwise archaic) burning sulphur, (the fuel of) hell-fire. LOE

1(b) figurative. Fire, passion. E17

2 obsolete. A virago, a spitfire; a promiscuous woman. L17-E19

3 In full brimstone butterfly. A pierid butterfly, Gonepteryx rhamni, with sulphur-yellow wings. L17

The phrase fire and brimstone, which for hundreds of years has struck fear into the hearts of the faithful, unsurprisingly has its origins in the Bible, in which brimstone is used in various descriptions of destruction and annihilation (Genesis 19:24, for example, with regards the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Modern translations are more likely to use the word sulphur (or sulfur), but it's not difficult to see how this abundant, yellow element came to be associated with destruction, hell and all things horrible.

Brimstone occurs naturally around volcanic vents and likely means "burning stone" (I have read several postulations that it is because it occurs at the brim of volcanoes, but the OED doesn't support this theory). For anyone that's never had the displeasure to smell burning sulphur, it is a singularly rank, suffocating experience, and it's sulphur that gives rise to the unpleasant smell of rotting eggs, skunks and the lovely whiff you can savour face-on whenever you accidentally singe your hair. Rather than just being unpleasant, however, sulphuric fumes can be lethal: both hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide are highly toxic. Being a historically important element known from ancient times, sulphur was mined by hand from around volcanic vents and, while sulphur is now largely obtained through other processes, this was particularly hellish work. Despite the drastically reduced life expectancies, poisoned lungs and bodies criss-crossed with burns, "sulphur slaves" still perform this brutal work in limited locations today for paltry pay and with virtually no protective equipment or safeguards.  Author Booker T. Washington wrote:

"A sulphur mine [...] is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life."

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur,
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin (1852)
With such punishing associations already in the human consciousness, conditions were always ripe for "fire and brimstone" preachers like Jonathan Edwards to terrify their flocks with images of brimstone and hell, such as in his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:

"That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of, there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up."

Fortunately, the mining of sulphur by the inhuman methods previously described is receding, as is the anachronistic use of brimstone and the hell myth to terrify people into submission. Therefore, when we light a match and taste that acrid, sulphuric smoke, we need not think of such awful, hellish associations, but rather be thankful for what a vital element brimstone truly is.

Brimstone, Sulphur, Sulfur
Lassen Volcanic National Park with the yellow sulphur deposits
(photo by Marcus Spiering)
Do you know of interesting brimstone trivia?

Do please leave your most acrid comments below.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Brimborion - A Brimful of Trash ... uh ...

Brimborion, Brimborium


Noun. Also -rium. Mid-17th century.
[French, earlier breborion, alteration of medieval Latin breviarium BREVIARY.]

A thing without use or value; trash, nonsense.

I'd like to solve a world problem; one day I think I will. A bit like the Japanese guy who thought: "D'ya know what? People are sick and tired of eating warm watermelons." And he's right - it's just such an uncooperative fruit: too big to fit in the fridge, and not as tasty when pre-chopped. And he fixed it! The world now has the Portable Watermelon Cooler. Not only does it allow you to have delectably chilled watermelon, it allows you to have it on the go. One wonders how we ever survived without it, and retailing at just under $300.00, it's an absolute steal.

Which (kind of) reminds me - recently I've been thinking about my soul and my prospects of eternal life. Now, I don't believe I'm going to heaven, but how do I know? How do I really know? By dogmatically believing I'm not, I might be cheating myself out of eternal bliss so perhaps, y'know, I should hedge my bets. Therefore, I've been thinking about reserving a place in heaven with a company that sells "Essential Heaven Travel Kits". Now, don't laugh - I know it sounds silly, but I've been looking into it and it all seems pretty legit. You get a certificate, an ID card and a heaven information pack. And the best thing is, there's a 100% money back guarantee if you get to heaven and your reservation isn't accepted. Seems to me I'd be a fool not to be buy it (although I have heard of some companies selling reservations for places in Hell - don't be an idiot and buy one of those, as everyone knows they're handed out for free ... tsk! ... do they think we're idiots?).

Anyway, my apologies for the random digressions. Today's word is brimborion, or sometimes brimborium, which means something that's, well, utter rubbish. It originally comes from the Latin for breviary, which is a religious book containing the service for that day. Therefore, although brimborion can refer to any rubbish or nonsense, it was often used in the sense of referring to religious rubbish (and we all know that religion is pretty good at churning out worthless tat). Anyway, I'm struggling to focus on anything lexicographical today, as I really, really want ... no ... need a portable watermelon cooler. If I bought one, do you think it'd be portable enough to take to heaven with me when I go? Of course - you're right. I should probably address that question directly to the reservations department. Right ... tally ho.

Brimborion, Brimborium

Are you as sick of tepid watermelon as I am?

Have you reserved your place in heaven?

If not, why not? 100% money back guarantee, you fool!

Seeing as I didn't provide any examples, do you know of any brimborions?

Please leave your most useless comments below. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Brigand - Outlaws of the Land

Highwaymen, Robbery, Robbers
Image courtesy of Boston Public Library


Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[French, from Italian brigante, originally = foot-soldier, use as noun of present participle of brigare: see BRIGADE.]

A1 noun. obsolete. A lightly armed irregular foot-soldier. LME-L18

A2 noun. A bandit or robber, especially one of a band living by pillage and ransom. LME

B verb trans. In passive. Be attacked by brigands. rare. L19

brigandage noun the practice of brigands, banditry, pillage; brigands collectively. E17
brigandish adjective. L19
brigandism noun the life of brigands, brigandage. M19
brigandry noun = brigandism. E20

Like many young boys, while growing up I was fascinated by stories of outlaws, rebels and criminals. Notable favourites included Robin Hood, The Artful Dodger and Long John Silver. There's an undeniable romance in the duality of such outlaws - those that have been wronged by society, or unwillingly forced into their criminal ways, or have otherwise admirable and noble qualities. The word brigand, however, specifically entered my vocabulary from a story in which an adventurer encountered a band of them while travelling through a forest. When held up, the lone hero refused to yield and so the leader, admiring the man's courage and eager to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, challenged him to a dual by sword. The first to draw blood would be the winner: should it be the brigand, then the traveller would hand over his money without further fight, and be it the traveller, the brigands would allow him to continue on his journey unmolested. The book's illustration of a lean, dashing brigand, confidently flourishing his sword is forever etched into my memory, as is the traveller's victory who, after brief but thrilling swordplay, nicked the brigand's shoulder and drew blood. True to his word, the brigand immediately returned his sword to its sheath and stepped forward with a smile to congratulate the daring traveller before inviting him to stay with their camp for the night and eat with them. Such honour! Such derring-do! From that day, the word brigand would always be associated with robbers, yes, but adventurous, daring and noble robbers.

Do you have any favourite brigands, thieves or outlaws?

Do please pilfer a few comments below.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Bricolage - Arts & Craft Just Got Manly



Noun. Mid-20th century.
[French. from bricoler do odd jobs, repair, formed as next.]

Construction or creation from whatever is immediately available for use;
something constructed or created in this way, an assemblage of haphazard or incongruous elements.


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[French = handyman, from bricoler (see above) + -eur -OR.]

A person who engages in bricolage; a constructor or creator of bricolages.

Let me set the scene: you're tied up in the back of a flat-spinning helicopter; the rotors have fallen off and the pilot is dead. All you have is a paperclip in one hand, a post-it note in the other, your immaculate mullet and fifteen seconds 'til impact. How do you survive? How do you survive? A real man would easily slip this fix, of course, because a real man is a deft bricoleur, schooled in the art of bricolage. True, it might not sound like the manliest of survival crafts with its fancy French pronunciation and spelling, but some of the manliest men that have every graced our screens have been bricoleurs - BA Baracus, for one, and the Brigadier-General of Bricolage himself, Agent Angus MacGyver, a man that could simultaneously disarm a nuclear weapon, tame a tiger and spot weld your leaking radiator with nothing more than his trusty paper clip, a can of Coke (to use as a catalyst, of course) and a child's toy trumpet. Now that's a real man. Even if you're not a get-your-hands-dirty, save-the-world-with-an-envelope type of guy, you can be a bricoleur in so many fields: art, literature, music, fashion or IT, to name just a few - all you need to have is the uncanny ability to bring together incongruous elements that are immediately to hand so as construct a novel artifact that addresses whatever purpose or problem you're attempting to manage. Easy.

Bricolage, Bricoleur
Art by Rasmus Olsen

Are you a bricoleur, or do you have any dazzling tales of real-life bricolage?

Were you able to out-bricolage the helicopter conundrum?

Are you offended by the rampant assumption in this post that bricoleurs are men?

Do combobulate your incongruous comments below.   

Friday, 25 October 2013

Breviloquence - Brief Recounter

Andrea Joseph, Biro, Art, Drawing
Art by Andrea Joseph


Noun. Rare. Mid-17th century.
[Latin breviloquentia, from brevis BRIEF adjective, short, + loquentia speaking.]

Brevity of speech.

I adore breviloquence.

(I can't say anymore without being a hypocrite, but putting it in a smaller font size compensates, right? And don't you just love the picture? Do you get the analogy? It's a zip, with a love heart, or, in other words, "I love it when you zip it!" Well, not zip it entirely, because that's not what breviloquence is, but "I love it when you say what you need to say and then zip it." Cool eh? Right. I'm in danger of drifting into the aforementioned hypocrisy here, so I'm gonna zip it and you're gonna love it, OK? And I'd also love it it you left breviloquent comments below. Just right below here - in that little box marked 'comments'. Right.)


Thursday, 24 October 2013

Breatharian - Inedia What's Going On?

A breatharian on a diet
(photo by Ekke)


Noun. Late 20th century.
[from BREATH + -ARIAN after vegetarian, fruitarian, etc.]

A person who believes that it is possible, through meditation, to reach a level of consciousness
where one requires no nutrients but those absorbed from the air or sunlight.

This is nuts. And dangerous. But mostly just nuts.

What say you?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Breath - Our Warmth, Our Life

Breath, Condensation, Breath of life
Photo by Sarah Nitt


[Old English bræþ from Germanic from Indo-European, from base meaning 'burn, heat'. 
In sense 3 etc. replaced Old English æþm, anda.]

1 An odour, a smell, a scent. Long obsolete except dialectical. OE

2(a) obsolete. A vapour given off by heated objects etc.: reek; steam. ME-M17

2(b) obsolete. Air exhaled from anything, or impregnated with its exhalations (compare with sense 7 below). E17

3(a) Air exhaled from the lungs (as made manifest by smell of sighs);
generally air inspired or expired in respiration. ME

3(b) The air blown into or out of a musical instrument. poetical. E17

3(c) PHONETICS. Voiceless expiration of air. M19

4 The faculty or action of breathing; existence, spirit, life. ME

5 An act of breathing, a single inspiration. ME

6 A whisper; an utterance, a speech; spoken judgement or will. ME

7 A gentle blowing (of wind, etc.), a puff;
figuratively the enlivening or favourable influence (of);
(passing into sense 2b), a whiff, a trace. LME

8 The power of breathing; free or easy breathing. L16

9 An opportunity or time for breathing. Compare with BREATHER. L16

Three times in my life, I've had the privilege of being with someone at the moment they die. The circumstances on each occasion were different: one was my Mum, who had suffered a sudden stroke nine days previously, one was my grandmother, who was elderly and had been in hospital for some time, and one was a stranger at the scene of a traffic accident. With each, however, there was a serenity and peace as I sat and held their hands, talking softly as I watched their breathing grow shallower, until at last and with a final certainty, they drew in their last breath and exhaled it softly. And then everything was still.

While it might seem morbid to remember these moments as a privilege, I can't regard it as anything else. These were three women who had lead full and productive lives, had raised loving families and had experienced times and overcome hardships that I could never begin to understand, and it was my place to be with them, to comfort them and ensure that they weren't alone, as that majestic journey ended and they went through that final mortal transition from life to death.

Death is horrific, of course, and the range of emotions that accompany it is extreme. I didn't know my grandmother well, and there was the sting of inevitable regret for a woman whose life I didn't really understand; the stranger, who was to me just an anonymous middle-aged woman who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place when a passing lorry shed its load, suffered horrific injuries, the sight of which haunted me for many months, as did guilt and doubt over whether I could have done more to save her; and Mum, the most loving and courageous mother a family could ever have, whose passing left the gnawing pain of loss and a void in each of us that could never be restored, nor would we want it to be, by anyone else.

It was a privilege and an honour to be with each of these women in their final moments, to know that they understood they weren't alone and could draw that final breath while hearing a gentle voice and feeling the warmth of a hand holding theirs. These experiences haven't made me more afraid of death; perhaps they've made me less so. But I do hope that come that time for me, when the heat of my breath is fading, that someone is there to talk softly to me, to hold my hand, and to tell me that I'm not alone.

Dead of Winter by Eels

Do please leave any comments below.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Breakfast - "It's What's for Dinner ... Er ... Lunch."

(photo by Thomas Angermann)



Noun & verb. Late Middle English.
[From BREAK- + FAST noun.]

A noun. The first meal of the day. Occasionally, any meal. LME

B1 verb intrans. Have breakfast. M17

B2 verb trans. Provide with breakfast. M17

breakfasting verbal noun (a) the action of the verb; (b) archaic. a taking of breakfast. M18
breakfastless adjective L18

When I was growing up, I loved when my parents made breakfast for dinner - the sizzle of sausages over the evening news, a golden stack of pancakes at sunset, runny eggs yellowing my homework, and, if you come from Cincinnati, Ohio in the States like I do, crispy goetta before bed. The inversion of food and flavors served up an inversion of time, of experience. Dinner, so often mundane and routine, became surprising and special as breakfast.
But etymologically speaking, breakfast was always for dinner. Er, lunch.
Breakfast, a clean compound of break and fast, is not attested until 1463, when it took the seat of Old English's morgenmete ("morning meat," the latter half of which once referred more generally to "food"). A Germanic root, a religious fast shares its origin with its "swift" and "secure" cousin. Don't eat that cronut: Hold fast to your fast. It may be these very religious valences that influenced English's uptake of breakfast: medieval monks took food only after their morning mass.
This possibility begs the question: Not what's for breakfast, but when's breakfast? According to Heather Arndt Anderson in Breakfast: A History: "Until relatively recently, lunch was the first meal of the day, but it was called dinner" (p. 5).
Dinner, and its verbal kin dine, are believed to come from a late Latin verb disjejunare, joining dis- (an undoing prefix; think disinfect) and jejunare (to fast; also the source of jejune and jejunum). In French, the word evolved from disner to dîner, both meaning "to eat" or "take a meal," originally the first meal. Not only did its form shift, but so did its sense, getting pushed back in French from "breakfast" to "lunch." 
English shaped the word into dinner some time in the early 1300s, where it has consistently referred to the main meal of the deal.
Etymologically, breakfast and dinner may be scrambled, but the common notion of a "main meal" may be the much needed salt. What might explain the shifting times of these meals and our words for them? In a word, culture - and how we earn (or have to earn) our means for the meals we eat.  An agricultural society necessitates a main meal during lunchtime, hungry from working from dawn and in need of fuel until dusk. The invention of electricity, however, makes meals possible later. And never underestimate the role of class in all of this: when the well-to-do dine can make for fast fashion.
In our modern age, many of us can eat whatever we want whenever we want. But I, for one, will still think breakfast for dinner is special.
When do you eat your main meal of the day?

And what do you call it?

Breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? Din-din? Supper? Tea?

Do please comment below.


Many thanks to John Kelly for his guest posting (hopefully he'll become a 'cereal contributor' ... groans). Living in Laguna Beach, California, John is an educator, working with adults with special needs. Writer and language lover, he eats etymologies for breakfast (literally and figuratively, apparently) and you can read all about it on his blog, The Mashed Radish, and why not follow the old bean on Twitter @mashedradish. Please serve John a huge Lexicolatrical welcome. Cheers. Ed

Monday, 21 October 2013

Bread - The Best Thing Since ...

Breadboard, bread knife, sandwich,
Photo by The Culinary Geek


[Old English bread = Old Frisian brad, Old Saxon, Middle & modern Low German brod,
Old High German brot (German Brot), Old Norse brauð, from Germanic, of unknown origin.]

1 obsolete. A piece or morsel of food. Only in OE

2(a) Flour moistened, kneaded, and baked, usually with leaven. OE

2(b) A load, a roll; a piece of bread. Now rare. LME

2(c) Historical. Ship's biscuit. M17

3 Essential food. ME

4 The means of subsistence; one's livelihood. E18

5 Money. slang. M20

Who can resist the alluring aroma of freshly baked bread in the morning? Passing a bakery on a cold winter's day, one can taste the warmth and richness in the air, and it's impossible not to pause for just a moment to savour that most delectable smell. As one of our most basic and ancient foods, it's remarkable that bread is so irresistibly delicious, especially when compared to other staples such as rice or potatoes which seem thoroughly insipid in comparison to its richness and variety. As one of the most important foods throughout history, it's hardly surprising that bread has ingrained itself so deeply into our culture and way of thinking, particularly in the language of work, necessity, religion and friendship. Just as bread accompanies us from our breakfast toast to the sandwich we eat for lunch and the roll we have with our dinner, bread is as much a staple of our words as it is of our plates.

Bread, being a common slang for money, is what we earn for our bread and butter, the basic necessities of life. If we live on what we don't earn, we're said to eat the bread of idleness, perhaps because we know on which side our bread is buttered (to know where our advantage lies), or if we're really fortunate because we have our bread buttered on both sides (to live in a state of easy prosperity). While a vindictive person might take the bread out of a person's mouth (to deprive someone of their livelihood), the social person will break break with someone (share a meal), especially in the spirit of a true companion (companion = Latin com with, together + panis bread).

Considering how valuable a place bread has in our history, culture and language, it's surprising that, in the Western world at least, we treat it so flippantly. Various studies have shown that, as well as being spectacularly wasteful with food generally, we're most likely to waste bread, with some estimates suggesting we throw away just under half of all bakery items. Considering how delicious, nutritious and culturally significant bread is (and that's without even mentioning the problem of world hunger), this really is a shameful trend. So go on - support your local baker: Go out, buy a freshly baked, mouth-wateringly scrumptious loaf, and then eat it with guiltless abandon. You know you want to.

What types of bread do you like?

Do you know of any other bread-based expressions?

Do please rise to the occasion and leaven your crumbiest comments below.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Brazen - Bull-Headed Brass

A brazen sky
Photo by Terry Porter


[Old English bræ sen, from BRASS noun & adjective + -EN.]

1 Made of brass; strong as brass. OE

2 Hardened in effrontery; shameless; impudent. L16

3 Of a brassy colour or sound; burnished; strident; harsh. L16

Brazen is a powerful word, and has been for me ever since I first learnt it as a child while reading a historical encyclopaedia in primary school. The entry Brazen Bull told of a sadistic creation by Perillos of Athens, a metal-worker who designed the Brazen Bull as a new and excruciating means of executing criminals for Phalaris, the tyrant king of Sicily, around 550 B.C. The bull was fully cast in bronze, hollow, and with a trapdoor through which the condemned would be forced. Once inside, a fire would be lit beneath the bull, heating the metal, and the victim would be slowly roasted to death. Even more diabolical was that Perillos installed a novel system of tubes and stops in the bull so that the victim's screams would be converted into the sound of a bellowing bull. While presenting his invention to Phalaris, Perillos is recorded as saying:

"His screams will come to you through the pipes as the tenderest, most pathetic, most melodious of bellowings."

Phalaris ordered that Perillos demonstrate his claim, at which Perillos climbed inside the bull to simulate screaming. Once inside, Phalaris ordered that the door be closed and the fire lit. As Perillos endured an agonizing death within his own creation, Phalaris saw that the system of pipes did indeed work, as Perillos's tortured screams resonated through the pipes and emerged as the sound of an infuriated bull. Legend has it that King Pharalis suffered a similarly fitting fate, as he too is said to have been killed within the Brazen Bull upon his overthrow by Telemachus, with the Brazen Bull going on to be one of the cruelest and most sadistic methods of execution used throughout Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Execution, Phalaris, Perillos, Cruelty, Sicily,
Engraving of the Brazen Bull by Pierre Woeiriot
While the Brazen Bull is a grotesque record of man's inhumanity to man, in modern times the word brazen is used to mean utterly shamelessness and impudence. One might think of the brazen hypocrisy of the United States and Great Britain in their shameless upbraiding of China for its hacking and cyber-warfare programmes, all the while secretly operating the biggest and most expansive cyber-surveillance and espionage operations that the world has ever seen. Or perhaps the brazen impunity with which bankers, politicians and financiers caused the economic downturn of the 2007-08 financial crisis. However one might apply it, brazen is a powerful word, one that reflects not just the very worst of what humans are capable of, but the very worst manner in which they go about doing such things.

Are there any examples that you think of as particularly brazen?

Have you ever acted brazenly?

Please leave your most shameless comments below.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Brawn - "Strong in the Arm & Thick in the Head"

Photo by BgMslDudes


Noun & verb. Middle English.
[Anglo-Norman braun, Old French braon fleshy part especially of the hind leg, from Germanic (Old High German brato, German Braten roast flesh; compare with synonymous Old English bræde, and brædan to roast).]

A1(a) noun. Muscle, lean flesh, especially of the arm, leg, or thumb; loosely muscularity, physical strength. ME

A1(b) noun. obsolete. The arm, calf, or buttock. LME-M19

A2 noun. Boar's flesh as food. Now usually specifically pig's head etc. boiled, chopped and moulded. LME

A3 noun. obsolete. The flesh of other animals as food. LME-M17

A4 noun. A boar fattened for the table. obsolete except dialectical. LME

A5 noun. obsolete. Calloused skin. M16-M17

B1(a) verb trans. obsolete. Harden, make callous. L16-M17

B2(b) verb trans. & intrans. Fatten (a boar), (of a boar) grow fat, for the table. Now rare or obsolete. L16

Also: brawner noun (obsolete except dialectical) a boar fattened for the table. M17


Adjective. Late Middle English.
[from BRAWN noun + -Y.]

1 Characterized by brawn; strong, muscular. LME

2 Calloused, hardened. Now rare or obsolete. L16

Also: brawniness noun M17

Brawn is a funny word and concept in English, as there's often a tacit assumption that if you're brawny, you're not that bright. In fact, it's hardly tacit at all, enshrined in such sayings as: "He's all brawn and no brains," or even more directly (and with a touch of cultural elitism thrown in): "Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred; strong in't arm and thick in't head." That assumption is just a tad unfair; after all, who's to say that the beefcake in our main picture doesn't hold a Ph.D in Advanced Theoretical Physics? (though I bet he doesn't). The brains vs. brawn idea also fires many fun and pointless debates over which women prefer; scientific studies have been conducted on it (brains win, apparently), and agony aunts have even pondered over such charming questions as: "I like a guy who's smart but a bit of a weed - would he be a good mate from a biological and evolutionary perspective?" However, brains and brawn are not completely incompatible, and there are plenty of famous examples of men that had both: Ernest Hemingway, for one, who was both a great writer and a seasoned adventurer. Or perhaps Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes before going on to become a celebrated neurologist. These are exceptional examples, of course, but there are plenty of others mixing up the gene pool, including those that do only have brawn or brains and, yes, those that have neither.

Woman, Muscles, Brawn, Brawny
Curiously, it's not a debate men have very often
(photo by SS Cusp)

So, after all that, which is it: brains or brawn?

Do please leave your weightiest comments below.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Brat - I Kid You Not

Brat, Naughty, Cheeky
And now children are pulling faces! What is this world coming to?
(photo by Carolina Georgatou)


Noun. Now dialectical.
[Old English (late Northumbrian) bratt from Old Irish bratt (Irish, Gaelic brat) mantle.]

1 Originally, a cloak. In later dialectical use, a pinafore, an apron;
contemptuously a rag, a scrap (of clothing). OE

2 The tough skin which form on porridge, etc. Scots. L17


Noun. Usually derogatory. Mid-16th century.
[Perhaps abbreviation of BRATCHET, or same word as preceding.]

A child, now especially an ill-behaved child.


Noun. Scots. Usually derogatory. Late 16th century.
[Apparently the same word as BRACHET.]

A little brat, an infant.

Once, while standing in line at a bakery, there was a beaming little blonde girl standing in the queue, smiling from ear to ear as her mum ordered a birthday cake with "I am 5!" printed on it. Catching the girl's eye I smiled at her, eager to share in her excitement. Her smile instantly disappeared and she ran over to where I was standing, kicking me in the shin as hard as she could with a cry of "Power Rangers!" Now, it's true that she was only five and I was a grown man, but a booted five-year-old can still pack quite a kick, especially when it's to the shin and you're not expecting it. Clearly the master of the instantaneous face-change, she reverted to her angel's face and sauntered back over to her mum who had turned, watched her little Power Ranger kick me, and then when I looked up from rubbing my shin she rolled her eyes at me! The word brat didn't escape my lips on that occasion, but it certainly went through my mind, as did several other choice words as the mum gathered up her stuff and, on leaving, rolled her eyes at me again. Brats might not be born, but they're certainly created, and I was pretty sure I had been in the presence of the master bratsmith on that day.

And brat is also the skin that forms on porridge which is ... umm ... interesting, right?
(photo by Adrian Clark)

What's the equivalent of brat in your language or area?

Were you a brat growing up?

How should we deal with the plague of brats overrunning our streets and promenades?

Please leave your most ill-behaved comments below.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Brassière - Bra Vogue

Brassiere, Titzling
A woman in a bra. Perhaps the easiest caption I've ever written.
(photo by David Yu)


Noun. Also brassiere. Early 20th century.
[French = child's reins, camisole, etc.]

A woman's undergarment worn to support the breasts.

We all know who invented the bra, right? I know this because I got the question in Trivial Pursuit once and got it right: it's Otto Titzling, of course. Except being an underhanded type of fellow, he supposedly stole the idea from Phillip de Brassière who subsequently sued, won, and that's why a bra is called a brassière and not a titzling. Except I didn't get it right. And neither did Trivial Pursuit. Otto Titzling, being a fictional character from the 1972 book Bust Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling, didn't invent anything. Rather, his name is simply a crude pun (a two-tit sling) that has somehow captured the public imagination (as anything to do with boobs is wont to do). Even his more refined sounding counterpart, Phillip de Brassière, is nothing more than a transparent pun (fill up the brassière). Shame on all of us for being so gullible.

In actual fact, the concept of bras and breast support predates Titzling (who supposedly lived in the early 20th century) by several thousand years. Female athletes in ancient Greece and Rome are depicted as wearing tight bindings to secure their breasts during sport, and startlingly modern looking bras have been discovered in Austria and dated to the 15th century. This indicates that what to do with breasts - whether to hide them, flaunt them, flatten them, accentuate them, etc - has long been a preoccupation for women (and men), probably for as long as humans have been wearing clothes.

The Bikini Girls, Bra, Brassiere
Roman women playing sport - mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale
(photo by Kenton Greening)
The modern brassière began to develop at the end of the 19th century. In fact, WWI pushed its production and popularity as women were discouraged from buying corsets (which were already beginning to fall out of favour) due to the scarcity of metal. Some estimates say that 28,000 tonnes of steel was thus saved by the United States, enough to build an entire battleship. Initially, the health benefits of wearing bras was touted in advertising and it's not difficult to see why this was convincing to women that had grown up wearing suffocating and organ-displacing corsets. The comfort, flexibility and fashionability of bras ensured that they would grow into what is today a multibillion dollar industry.

So bras are good for women, right? They offer support, comfort and (crucially) prevent their breasts from sagging in later life (a condition that's properly called breast ptosis). Well, a body of research is rapidly growing that indicates no, bras are not good for women and no, they do not prevent breasts from sagging or drooping as one ages. Regarding health matters, badly fitted bras have been linked to all manner of health problems - from bad backs to migraines, skin abrasions and restricted breathing. "Ah!" you say, "but that's just women with badly fitted bras!" True, but as some estimates suggest that 80% of women have ill-fitting bras, it's certainly a considerable problem, and one that gets worse for women with larger breasts.

Bra, Brassiere
Permalift ad from 1951

What about ptosis, the problem of sagging breasts? Well, again, it would seems that our ideas about bras are misplaced. A 15-year French study concluded that no, bras do not prevent sagging, and in actual fact wearing a brassière might accelerate sagging as it weakens the connective structures that hold the breasts in place. Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon of Besançon University states: "Medically, physiologically, anatomically - breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity. On the contrary, they get saggier with a bra." While times are changing, the pressures of fashion and cultural norms still dictate that most Western women wear bras regardless of the health implications. As research gathers pace, however, perhaps the days of the brassière are numbered, as essential items at least. If they are, as Professor Rouillon states, "a false necessity," maybe one day we'll look back on bras and their era with the same curiosity with which we regard corsets: "Women strapped themselves into those? How odd. And yet aesthetically pleasing." Now wouldn't that be something?

Do you see the bra as an essential component of one's wardrobe, or purely a fashion item?

Were you expecting more puns in this piece?

Don't you find it odd that the etymology of brassière is 'a child's reins'?

Do please leave your most uplif ... umm ... just leave your comments below.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Brass - Freezing Squalls and Monkey Balls

Brass knockers - there's a joke in there somewhere.
(photo by Natesh Ramasamy)


Noun & adjective.
[Old English bræs = Old Frisian bres, Middle Low German bras metal, of unknown origin.]

1(a) noun. Originally, any allow of copper with tin or zinc or occasionally other metals.
Now, a yellow allow of copper and zinc only (compare with bronze noun). OE

1(b) noun. Brass taken as a type of hardness or insensitivity; impudence, effrontery, nerve. LME

2(a) noun. A brass object; such objects collectively, brassware;
specifically wind instruments of brass, the section of an orchestra or band comprising of these. LME

2(b) noun. A monumental or sepulchral tablet of brass, bearing figures, inscriptions, etc.,
laid in the floor or set into the wall of a church. M16

2(c) noun. A bearing or block for a shaft. M16

2(d) noun. In full horse-brass. A brass ornament worn by a draught horse. E20

2(e) noun. A brass block or die used to impress a design, etc. on a book-cover. M20

3 noun. Originally, copper or bronze coin. Now (colloquially), money generally, cash. LME

4 noun. High-ranking officers in the armed forces (compare with brass hat);
generally leaders, bosses. Also top brass. slang (originally US). L19

5 noun. elliptically = brass nail. slang. M20

B attributively or as adjective. (Made of) brass, brazen. LME

While it might not carry the grand opulence and mystery of, say, gold, brass does indeed have an important place in human history and therefore is the basis of many colourful and curious idioms. A high-ranking officer, for example, is a brass hat (in reference to the gold braid on his cap), and such officers generally are the top brass. At the other end of the social spectrum is the brass nail, rhyming slang for tail, meaning a prostitute. A brass farthing means the absolute least possible, usually in a negative context such as "That boy hasn't done a brass farthing!", and getting down to brass tacks means to get down to the nitty-gritty details of something.

Perhaps the most interesting (and vivid) expression, however, was one I first heard from my Scottish mother-in-law: "It's so cold it'd freeze the balls off a brass monkey!" Few idioms are either as intriguing or research-worthy. Who is (or was) this brass-balled monkey, and why were his globulars so sensitive to the cold? As my mother-in-law didn't know the origin, an investigation was quickly afoot.

Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil, Freeze the balls off a brass monkey
A trio of brass monkeys - and not a ball in sight
(photo by Chris Jones)
My research quickly lead me to to a naval explanation. Specifically, a ship's cannonballs were stacked into a pyramid shape on brass plates called monkeys. When the weather was really cold, it would cause the brass plate to contract, and therefore all of the cannonballs would roll off it; therefore, it was literally cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Wonderful! The story has history, it has adventure, and it is absolutely genitalia-free and therefore appropriate mother-in-law material. Unfortunately, it's also complete rubbish.The story quite clearly makes very little sense - after all, who would stack cannonballs in a pyramid on a ship's deck? The health and safety implications on the high seas are beyond thinking about. Also, there is no evidence that any such plate existed or was ever called a monkey. This leads us uncomfortably back to a literal brass monkey and his balls.

So what's the real origin? Rather unsatisfactorily, no one knows. Earlier incarnations of the saying were cleaner, such as "cold enough to freeze the tail off a brass monkey." A common souvenir in times past was a trio of brass monkeys - each covering a separate body part, be it the ears, eyes and mouth (interpreted as hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil). It's possible that, without a specific reason, at some point the observation was made that it was cold enough to freeze one of these monkey's tails off. However, some sets also had a fourth monkey, one that was covering its genitals. Therefore, someone familiar with the saying may have seen such a ball-covering monkey and assumed it had its balls frozen off. However, there is some good news: thanks to something called the oligodynamic effect, brass naturally disinfects itself. Therefore, should you find the eponymous monkey's balls and wish to return them, you can handle them safe in the knowledge that at least they're sterile.

Have you heard the expression "to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"?

Are there any brassy expressions in your language?

Do please leave your nuttiest comments below.