The riveting origins of “rivet”

In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller created one of the iconic images of World War II, of feminism, of America itself.

On a bright yellow background with bold white letters proclaiming “We Can Do It!”, his poster boasts a woman flexing her bicep in a blue uniform and red polka-bot bandana. She was inspired by a 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley working at the US Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, as Seton Hall University professor James Kimble painstakingly determined.

Parker Fraley passed away at age 96 last Saturday, but she will always be remembered as Rosie the Riveter. But she wasn’t the firstRosie the Riveter, however.

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Originally called “We Can Do It!”, now commonly known as the Rosie the Riveter poster (Wikimedia Commons)

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Irma: a storm, and etymology, of terrifying size and power

Floridians are bracing for Irma, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and which has already left extensive destruction in its Caribbean wake—and the origin of the storm’s moniker is all too cruelly appropriate for its wrath and path. 

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Hurricane Irma superimposed over the state of Ohio. Screenshot from @jdrudd.

Irma’s sound and fury

According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, the name Irma is a pet form of various names of Germanic origin beginning with the element ermen, meaning “whole, entire, universal.” That’s too apt, as meteorologists are helping us grasp the terrifying size of this monster storm by showing Irma is larger than the whole of the state of Ohio.

Another familiar ermen-based is Emma. Emma was brought to the English-speaking world by Emma of Normandy (985–1052), who gave birth to Edward the Confessor in her marriage to Æthelred the Unready. 

Less immediately familiar is Emmerich, a Germanic name often explained as literally meaning “universal power,” joining to ermen the root rich, “ruler.” This root, via various Germanic and Italic paths, is related to a host of English words, including right, realm, regal, and yes, the very words rich and ruler.

In Medieval Italian, the name Emmerich apparently became Amerigo, famously borne by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). Vespucci demonstrated that the New World—in that old European orientation—was not Asia but its own landmass. A Latinized version of his name gives us America, remembered in both the northern and southern continents and, of course, the U. S. of A.

With a storm like Irma, its seems the whole world is reaching out—whether with thoughts or aid—to everyone affected in the Americas by her winds and waters.

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The home of the “brave”

This presidential cycle, America seems more polarized than ever. But on the July Fourth holiday, we can all put aside our divisions and stand together in this home of the brave. As it turns out, the origin of the very word brave tells its own story of conflict – and in the end, perhaps a kind unity after all.

Brave roots, some not-so brave meanings 

Among its earliest meanings in English, brave didn’t mean “valorous.” It meant “showy,” “handsome,” or “finely dressed.” The Oxford English Dictionary attests these meanings in the mid-16th century. But come the early 17th century, the word had shaded towards a general sense of “excellent,” then its modern “courageous” and “intrepid.”

Brave has long been a starred-and-striped word. English borrowed it from the French brave, where it meant both “splendid” and “valiant.” (Think chivalrous cavaliers.) The French, in turn, was influenced by the Italian bravo, where this spangled adjective also meant “bold,” as well as by Spanish, which conveyed “wild” and “savage” with its bravo.

The further ancestry of brave may not be so easy to see – or so gallantly streaming. Some suggest brave is a variation on the Latin barbarus, meaning “foreigner.” Others, on pravus, “crooked” or “depraved,” hence “savage,” likely characterizing the ferocity of outsiders and enemies. (Note that depraved itself features the root pravus.)

Meanwhile, Walter Skeat insisted brave derives from the same Celtic root he believed gave English brag, citing breagh, or “fine.” Skeat also notes some competing theories in his sources, including Old Dutch and Swedish words.

Whatever the source of the word, the sense of brave seems to have developed from “wild” to “bold” to “showy” to “courageous,” apparently on the basis of outward demonstrations and displays. (Sounds pretty American to me, huh?)

Cognates to brave include bravado, bravura, and bravo! And the reason some called Native Americans braves didn’t have to do as much with any valor white traders or settlers observed: its thank to the French brave, which we should remember also connoted “savage.”

Brave‘s new world

Words, like Americans, are immigrants, coming from countries and tongues afar. Words, like Americans, are contradictory, teeming with conflicted and conflicting ideas, values, and experiences. And words, like Americans, can forget their deeper roots and stories.

But on Independence Day, Americans commemorate the beginning of its nation, its experiment. And I, as one American citizen, think that it’s fitting that the etymology of brave is obscure. There is bloodshed in its past. There are foreigners and outsiders. Yet there is also change and progress in the word’s meaning, from “flashy” to “fearless.”

The exact origins of brave have been lost to that melting pot of time, history, and memory. Regardless of our divisions, we are Americans – in the home of the brave, stars, stripes, sins, successes, and all.

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