A week out, Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has only raised more questions than it answers. In the meantime, let’s put the word bureau under an etymological investigation.
The story of the word bureau is one of substitutions. In its original French, bureau originally named a “coarse woolen cloth,” particularly baize, the green, felt-like fabric that covers card and pool tables. Historically, bureaus draped desks, desks filled offices, and offices housed the business of governmental agencies—like the FBI.
Etymologically, though, bureau wasn’t green. The term derives from burel, an Old French diminutive of bure, “dark brown cloth.” Bure, in turn, may be from the Latin burrus, a word for “red” and related to the “fiery” Greek root that gives English pyro. Alternatively, the Old French bure may come the Latin burra, “shaggy garment” or “flock of wool.”
Bureau appears in English in French contexts as early as 1664 for an “office” or “business,” natively established by 1720. In the 1690s, bureau harkened back to its earlier sense of “writing desk” and extended to a “chest of drawers” by 1755, which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes as a chiefly American usage.
As for the FBI, it was formed by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte, as the Bureau of Investigation in 1908, officially named the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. The title wasn’t a novelty: Other organizations had bureaus of investigation for specialized studies as early as 1866, according to the OED. Nor was the use of bureau new to government: The Bureau of Indian Affairs was founded in 1824 and, immediate parent to the FBI, the National Bureau of Criminal Identification in 1896.
Some etymologists, meanwhile, have suggested the Latin burra, a possible source of bureau, also yields burlap, burgeon and—as some may think all too aptly describes Trump’s Comey firing—burlesque, whose original sense of an “absurd parody” may be rooted in an extension of burra as “trifle” or “nonsense.”