In his latest controversy, Donald Trump has been criticizing Khazr and Gazala Khan, whose son died fighting in Iraq. Khazr rebuked Trump in a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, but Trump’s unseemly response has drawn, yet again, his own sharp rebukes from the likes of John McCain and President Obama.
In these rebukative times (and yes, that’s a word, though rare), it’s hard not to wonder: What does the –buke in rebuke mean, anyways? If some etymologists are right, its origin is quite literally very sharp.
Rebuke has been stinging English since the early 14th century. Back then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to rebuke was “to reprimand” and “chide.” Over the centuries, the severity of this reprimanding and chiding intensified, today denoting “condemn” and often paired with sharp.
Rebuke is French in origin. English borrowed it from the Anglo-French rebuker, derived from the Old French rebuchier. The original meaning of rebuker and rebuchier was “to beat back,” as one might an advancing fighter. Many etymological dictionaries maintain that the French rebuchier joins re-, “back,” with buchier, “to strike” or “chop wood.” And so rebuke jumped from a physical counterblow to a verbal one.
In the woods
Now, according to this “wood” theory, the root of all this French “chopping” is busche or bûche: “woods” or “wood,” especially “firewood.” English’s own bush is related. Bush itself is a thicket of Scandinavian (Old Norse buskr), Germanic (Old High German busc), and Romanic (Medieval Latin busca) influences and cognates. All these bush’s appear to be borrowed, ultimately, from West Germanic or Frankish.
The French busche (now bois) also appears in ambush. In Old French, the word was embuscher, “in the woods,” where one might lay an ambush. But not all bush cognates are so violent. Via French-Canadian, Boise, Idaho is named for its “wooded” lands. Bouquet means “little wood.” And an oboe is an English rendition of the French hautbois, the sound of “high wood.” (For haut, think haughty.)
Not out of the woods yet
As noted, there are other theories for the origins of rebuke. Earnest Weekley and Walter Skeat connect rebuke not with the blow of an ax on wood but with a blowing of the cheeks. They cite the French bouche, “mouth.” Skeat goes on to explain rebuke as “to puff back,” hence “to reject,” making rebuke much the same as rebuff, from the Italian word ribuffo, “a blow back.”
On rebuke, the OED concludes that the French buchier (“to beat”) is uncertain in origin. Trump, as many politicians are admonishing, could learn a thing or two from the OED: Staying quiet is definitely one way to avoid rebuke.