“Tory”: How the conquest of Ireland named the UK Conservative Party

With Michael Gove throwing in his hat and Boris Johnson throwing in his towel, the post-Brexit scramble for Tory – or Conservative – leadership was thrown into confusion this week in the UK. This chaos is fitting, if we look to history of Tory, a word embroiled in many conflicts of its own.

Tory story 

In its conquest of Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, England massively dispossessed the Irish of their land – among other depravations. Out of need, pride, and retaliation, some Irish turned to outlawry, plundering and killing English settlers and soldiers. By 1646, in the wake of a bloody rebellion, the English mocked these ‘Catholic, marauding bog-trotters, these savage, moss-trooper highwaymen,’ with a nickname: “tories.”

Documented in the Irish State Papers nearly a century prior, the term tory meant “outlaw” or “robber.” It derives from the Irish tóraí, from tóir “to pursue.” (Older forms, depending on your transliteration, include tóruighe, a “pursuer” or “searcher,” via tóirighim, “I pursue.”) Etymologists connect these forms to older Celtic and Indo-European bases meaning “running up to” and “to turn” or “roll.”

By 1679-80, this Tory, now with a capital T, was slung at the so-called Exclusioners, who were opposed to the succession of James, Duke of York, to the Crown. James was Catholic. What better way to attack his supporters – and stop, God forbid, any restoration of Irish land – than link them with those wild Irish tories? And what better way for the Tories to hit back than with Whig, those Protestant yokels and bumpkins? The origin of whig is uncertain, but some think it originally mean “horse driver” in Scottish Gaelic.

Many of these Yorkist Tories formed a new political party in 1689: the Tories. It was born of a longer tradition of royalism – of championing the power of the Church of England – going back to the English Civil War. Tory officially named the English Conservative Party until 1830, though, despite many changes in their political platform since, the term is still used informally today (as it is in Canada). During the American Revolution, Tories were colonists loyal to the British crown. During the American Civil, Confederates called Union sympathizers in their midsts Tories.

For many in Britain today, the etymology of Tory, that “bandit,” is mot juste, from conservatives who feel Gove stole leadership from Johnson to Remainers who feel Brexiters stole the UK from the EU. And while the meaning of our words change, our politics are as messy as ever. Perhaps we should look to that older root of Tory, “to pursue,” and apply it less to fighting and more to solutions.

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What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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Pulling “rabbit” out of the etymological hat

Christianity, in many ways, originates with Easter: Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead is a cornerstone of the faith. The Easter Bunny, most maintain, originates in German folklore involving a rabbit that delivered colored eggs to good little girls and boys. And the holiday’s bunnies, chicks, and eggs, of course, have longed served as symbols of fertility, rebirth, and new life. But what about the word rabbit?

Down the rabbit hole

Some of my favorite etymologies concern those simple, everyday words whose origins we simply don’t know. Over at Oxford Dictionaries, I recently wrote about a number of them, including dog. Yes, dog; we just don’t know what, er, etymological tree it’s barking up. We can add to this list rabbit, another commonplace word for a commonplace animal whose origins are obscure.

Here’s the problem with rabbit: there is apparently no native Celtic or Germanic word for this animal, as the critter was not native to northern Europe. These early cultures had a word for hare, no doubt, but not the rabbit. Now, I can’t quite tell you the difference between the rabbit and the hare, but the lexicon of our Indo-European ancestors certainly registered them.

A rabbit, wondering that’s the etymology of its name it hears lurking in the brush. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/jeffreyvb-33973.

We have record of rabbit by the late 14th century. Origins have been proposed like, well, rabbits. But, in his excellent An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology, professor and philologist Anatoly Liberman easily dispatches with many of the early ones, including: the Hebrew for “copulate,” the same Latin root that yields rabies, the Greek for “creeper,” and even the name Robert.

But the picture gets more complicated when we consider robett, the word for rabbit in Walloon, a Romance language spoken in parts of Belgium and France (and, for a time, in Wisconsin). This cognate, though now considered borrowed from Flemish, has led many etymologists to seek a Romance root for rabbit, including in the French râble (“back and loin of the rabbit”) and the Spanish rabo (“tail”). Liberman traps these hypotheses, as tempting as they may look.

Instead, Liberman looks to a structure used in Germanic animal names, including German’s Robbe (“seal”) and the Icelandic robbi (“sheep, ram”): r + vowel + b. He also roots robin, whose name has been of equally problematic origin, in this structure. Onto this base was added a French suffix along the lines of -et or –ot.

As Liberman nicely sums it up: “Rabbit is a Germanic noun with a French suffix.”

But what does r-b mean?  Speakers of ancient Germanic languages apparently – and arbitrarily – had  this sound complex available as vehicle for naming animals of all sizes and stripes. And the French -et  or -ot signifies diminutives. So, a rabbit, if Liberman is correct, is some sort of little animal-type thingy.

Liberman puts rabbit into the bigger picture for us: “Rabbits were well known in the British Isles by the year 1200, but the word rabbit surfaced two centuries later. Most likely, speakers of English coined many words for the new animal. They are all lost, while rabbit has survived. The sound complex r-b in the name of the rabbit has no parallels outside Germanic.”

The hare is larger and has longer ears than the rabbit does, among other differences. The Easter Bunny can be frightening enough. But the Easter Hare? Eesh. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In the rabbit warren 

English does have other words in its leporine lexicon, though. Coney was an earlier name for “rabbit,” attested by the early 13th century though largely displaced by the 19th century; its historic pronunciation, rhyming with honey, yielded some coarse slang. Coney ultimately derives from the French conil, which, in turn, comes from the Latin cunīculus.

But, like English’s own rabbit, cunīculus was not a native term for the Romans. Historians, even ancient historians, note that Spaniards introduced rabbits to the Romans. In Spanish, rabbit is conejo, though this develops from the Latin; etymologists suggest an ultimately Iberian origin for the word.

Some claim, though it’s disputed, the very name Spain means “land of rabbits,” from a Phoenician root for the “hyrax,” cognate, from what I gather, to Hebrew’s šāpān. The King James Bible uses coney, in fact, to translate the name for this creature that looks like a rodent but is not related.


The rock hyrax, actually related to elephants, not rabbits. Image from http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/revi82-62142.

Bunny hops onto the scene last. The OED cites it as a “pet name for a rabbit” by 1606, from bun. Documented a few decades earlier, bun originally named a “squirrel” or a “rabbit,” leading some to a Scottish word referring to “tail.” But the ultimate origin is unknown – which, for an etymology nerd like me, is like candy in my Easter basket. Just no Peeps, please.

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Dismantling “mantle”

I’ve been thinking about the word mantle recently. During the latest Republican debate, Donald Trump trumpeted that he “will gladly accept the mantle of anger” about the problems, at least in his and his supporters’ view, that the US faces.

Meanwhile, the Iran deal went into effect after “the country followed through with its promises to dismantle large sections of its nuclear program,” the New York Times reported.

What’s going on with this word mantle?

Anger? Nuclear power? This mantel, related to mantle, is much cozier. Doodle by me.


Like clothes strewn across a teenager’s bedroom, mantle is all over the place in English. It’s a symbol of authority. It’s a mostly solid layer of super-hot rock constituting over 80% of Earth’s volume. It’s a poetic way to describe blushing. If you switch around some letters, it’s even that piece of wood over your fireplace where you display various knickknacks, objets d’art, and pictures of your family, if you remember to put them back up whenever they come over.

But at its root and in its earliest meanings, a mantle is a cloak. English donned mantle twice in its history. Very early on, English – like a younger brother wanting to look cool in his older sibling’s clothes, and probably without asking first – borrowed the word from Latin. In Old English, mantle was mentel, among other forms, and referred to a “loose, sleeveless cloak,” as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) glosses it.

Later, after the Normans conquered England, English added the word once again to its wardrobe from the French mantel. As we know well on this blog, the French also derives from the Latin.

And the Latin etymon? Mantellum. It also means “cloak.”

Mantle pieces 

Some have argued mantellum is connected to some similar Latin words: mantēlium and mantēle, with various meanings of “napkin,” “hand-towel,” and “table-cloth.” Others have argued that the word is actually a diminutive form of some mantus or mantum. Eric Partridge proposes a Basque source, such as mantar, a “chemise” or “plaster.” (We saw Basque once before in an old post on bay, as in the body of water.) Wiktionary, meanwhile, posits a Gaulish root meaning “trodden road.” I’m not quite sure about the connecting sense with that one.

So, our knowledge of mantle‘s origin isn’t quite snug. But most dictionaries do suggest a possible Celtic origin. Unifying all the various words we’ve seen is some sense of a covering. Originally, a cloth-y fabrication, apparently.

Metaphor fashioned quite a bit out of this “cloak.” The geological mantle cloaks the Earth’s core, a usage dated to the 1930s. A blush mantles one’s cheek. Walter Skeat helps us out for a fireplace’s mantel, a variant of mantle: “In old fire-places, the mantel slopes forward like a hood, to catch the smoke.” The earlier form was mantiltre in Middle English, a manteltree, the covering piece made from timber. So, a mantel once cloaked the fireplace, the feature a mere ornamental vestige today.

As for Trump’s mantle of anger? (I would think that that would be more like a tight-fitting Kevlar vest.)  The OED dates this metaphor for an important duty or position, particularly as assumed from a predecessor, to the 1650s: It was “originally used with allusion to the passing of Elijah’s mantle to Elisha, understood allegorically.” Trump: real estate mogul, Republican frontrunner, prophet? Oh my.

And dismantle? This word derives from the French desmanteller, “to take the cloak off [of somebody].” (We saw similar sartorial assaults with the etymology of robe.) It was used, however, as a military metaphor, “to raze” or “tear down [fortress walls],” just as it did when it first appeared in English in the late 1500s. This desmanteller joins des- (“away”) and manteler (“to cloak”).

The Romance languages, we think, shortened mantellum into some words you might know well. French hemmed it to manteau, a “cloak,” which appears in portmanteau, a kind of “traveling bag with two compartments.”  To manteau French adds porte, a command “to carry,” originally issued to a court official to transport a prince’s mantle. Now, thanks to Lewis Carroll, a portmanteau word names a blend, like brunch, fusing “breakfast” and “lunch.” Spanish, meanwhile, tailored it to manta, a kind of “blanket,” which might well describe a manta ray.

Like the cloak it originally names, mantle is quite the versatile piece in the closet, lexically speaking.

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Dinosaurs, roofs, & togas: An etymological thug life

We’ve had a lot of big words in the news this week, as we’ve had a lot of big events. One word in particular grabbed headlines as a word, thug, thanks to Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s use of it in reaction to violence in her city this past week.

Thug is a very loaded word, to say the least. Thanks to some great commentary in the media outlets, we’ve also learned it is a very historically complicated, coded, and nuanced term, variously and nefariously applied through the centuries–to African Americans, union busters, and Indian assassins, whom the term originally names. Merriam Webster’s Kory Stamper weighed in on The Washington Post. Megan Garber reflected on The Atlantic. Ben Zimmer zoomed in back in 2013 at Newsweek. John McWhorter offers particularly incisive and insights on the word in an NPR interview, illustrating a key point that “black people saying ‘thug’ is not like white people saying ‘thug.'”

Since her statements, Baltimore’s mayor has walked back her words, stating they “don’t have thugs in Baltimore.” Etymologically, she she might be wrong, as the origin of thug may literally be present in the very name Baltimore.

Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white.  "Thug." Doodle by me.
Tiles are about the only thing that are ever truly so black and white. “Thug.” Doodle by me.


Again, I will ultimately point you to the likes of Stamper, Zimmer, Garber, and McWhorter on the evolution of thug, but the Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word (often capitalized) in 1810, naming professional assassins in India who befriended travelers only to murder them, particularly by strangulation. The word is from the Hindi ṭhag and Mahrati (spoken in Western India) ṭhag or ṭhak, naming a “cheat” or “swindler.” We can see how the Thugs’ fundamental deception lends them their name.

Most etymologists stop here, as they are appropriately conservative, given the hypothetical, if methodical, nature of historical reconstruction. But others do speculate that this Hindi ṭhag may come from the Sanskrit sthagati, “he hides,” as Eric Partridge offers.

Under ‘cover’

The Sanskrit sthagati may be uncovered, if you will, from the Proto-Indo-European (s)teg-, “to cover.” This yielded Latin’s tegere“to cover,” which is behind integument (“covering”), protect (“cover up”), and detect (“uncover,and its derivative detective). A toga is also a kind of covering derived from this root. Roofs are coverings, hence tegula, “roof tile,” which gives us tile and Tyler, an English surname and given name for “tile-maker.” Speaking of English, the Germanic languages also took up (s)teg-giving English thatch and deck. The former was used especially of roofs. The latter bedecks those halls, too.

Roof tiles date back yet before antiquity: they are veritably Jurassic. The stegosaurus, or Greek for “roof lizard,” had armored back plates that resemble roof tiles, if the Greek στέγος (“roof”) is any measure when the creature was named in the 19th century.

No roof? No shelter. No house. This appears to be reflected in Celtic languages. Welsh has ty and Irish tech, both meaning “house.” Another Irish form for “house” is tigh or , which appear in Baile na Tighe Mór or Baile an Tí Mhóir, renderings for “townland of the big house,” a village in southern Ireland whose name you might recognize as Baltimore. (Apologies to my Irish-speaking readers for butchering any of these renderings.) The American city was named for the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland and whose family estate is that “big house” in that Irish town.

Etymology does it again—if in its full, tenuous, overwrought glory here at the Mashed Radish. But, of course, the real thugs in Baltimore, the real big house in the big house, that we need to reconsider aren’t the etymological ones.

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As part of his State of the Union Address last Tuesday, President Obama pitched middle-class tax breaks offset, in part, by closing certain tax loopholes that can benefit America’s wealthiest. I’m not fit to weigh in on tax policy (though you may want to learn the curious origin of the word tax), but I do want to weigh in on this word loophole.

If you’re like me, this metaphorical loophole brings to mind a literal hole formed out of a loop of string or some such material. You would indeed think the word is exactly that: a simple compound of loop and hole. It might be, but its etymology still proves to be pretty knotted.

"Loophole." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Loophole.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


It’s the loop in loophole that throws us for a loop. For this loop, we actually need to consider two loops

The first loop is the one we are most familiar with, the one formed in needlework or a noose. Some thread this loop back to a Germanic root that gives English the word leap. Others–famously, Walter Skeat–have proposed a Celtic borrowing, citing the Gaelic lub, a “bend,” “loop,” and “winding,” as well as “to meander.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates this meaning of loop back to at least 1475. Given Celtic languages’ surprisingly limited impact on the English language, this would be an interesting borrowing indeed.

But English has a second and older loop, an “opening in a wall to look through, or to allow the passage of a missile.” This is attested in 1393, and by 1591, the OED cites loophole as such and naming the kind of narrow arrow slits we see in castles. Some suggest that this loop is from same word as we see in a loop of string. Others, however, go Dutch, aiming at the Middle Dutch lupen, variously glossed as “to lurk,” “to lie in wait,” “peer,” “watch,” or “look slyly.” Oxonian scholars also mention an Anglo-Latin loupa in the late 14th century, referring to a medieval loophole and of unknown origin.

By 1664, according to the OEDloophole takes on the figurative sense that ultimately yields today’s tax loophole:

An outlet or means of escape. Often applied to an ambiguity or omission in a statue, etc., which affords opportunity for evading its intention.

The OED adds that the usage may be influenced by the Dutch loopgat, joining loopen (“to run”) and gat (“way”). This loopen, however much it resembles the Middle Dutch lupen, doubles us back to that Germanic base giving us leap–and, possibly, loop. Now that’s an etymological loop-the-loop.


The origin of loophole may well live up to its name. Loop figures into a number of useful expressions. Loopy, as in crazy or drunk, is probably from loopy’s original sense of “full of loops.” Thrown for a loop, and its earlier variant, knock for a loop, may originate in the boxing ring near the turn of the 20th century, thanks to some sleuthing from Ben Zimmer and Jonathon Green. In the loop and out of the loop appears some 70 years later in aviation circles.  Aviators maneuver loop-the-loopsConey Island thrilled with its famous Loop-the-Loop. In late 1950s and early 60s, Hanna-Barbera produced the onetime, pun-loving “do-good wolf”:

Maybe we should put the well-meaning but much maligned canine in charge of the US tax policy–and, hell, gun control.

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The word job has a big job in our language.

Primary school teachers reinforce their pupils with “Good job!” stickers on homework assignments. When we meet somebody new, jobs are among our first questions. And monthly jobs reports have the power to shift political landscapes.

We land first jobs, which are often summer jobs. Told not quit our day jobs, we work odd jobs as we strive for dream jobs. We fill out job applications, read job descriptions, try to improve job satisfaction, and hope for job security. We fall prey to inside jobs or want our money back for hack jobs. We envy those with cushy jobs. We run from nut jobs and whack jobs who’ve just carried out bank jobs. We get nose jobs. Behind the bedroom door–well, I didn’t expect this introduction to be, um, a dirty job.

Our jobs put food in our mouths–and, etymologically, it turns out job may be even closer to our mouths than we might suspect.

"Job." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Job.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In spite of its big role in our lexicon and lives, job has a humble history.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) dates job back to 1557, when it referred to a “piece of work”: a iobb of werk, the dictionary cites. Ernest Weekley is helpful here, as he notes that such a job of work would have stood in contrast to work that is “continuous.”

The deeper origin is ultimately unknown, but the word may well be related to gob, which you probably best recognize in the plural, e.g., gobs of money.

This gob has been working since the 14th century, meaning a “piece,” “lump,” or “mass.” And it was also put to work as a “cartload” in the 1600s. Perhaps you can imagine a worker hauling some mound of material–perhaps stone or straw or whatever it is piled up in that preceding doodle–one load at a time until the job is done. Indeed, Walter Skeat cites the expression “to work by the gob.” Perhaps our equivalent today would be a task or a project.

By the 17th century, job was moving up the ladder, starting to signify work one has to do as part of his or her occupation. By the 19th century, job was referring to one’s actual position of employment.


Gob comes from the French gobe or goube, referring to a “mouthful.” The word, in turn, is from the verb gober, “to swallow” or “gulp.” Some dictionaries even gloss gober as “gobble,” which is most likely related as a frequentative form of gob with imitative influence, like a turkey’s gobble.

Gobbet (also a “lump,” though more specifically “a piece of raw flesh”) is related, too; it’s considered a diminutive of gobe. We saw this diminutive, which takes the form -et, in target. Other French borrowings like budget, bullet, and pocket feature it. A goblet, which we brought to our more medieval mouths for gulping, is so descended as well.

From gobe, etymologists propose a Gaulish root, *gobbo, meaning “beak” or “mouth” (Baumgartner & Menard). Cognates include the Gaelic gob, a “beak” or “bill,” and the Irish gob, a “bill” or a “mouth.”

Scottish and Northern English speakers gobbled up this Celtic-based root with a sense of humor, taking up gob as jocular term for “mouth,” as in a gobstopper. Do all these connections leave you a bit gobsmacked? Yep, the British expression means “smacked in the gob,” or “mouth.” Or perhaps you’ve shown the patience of Job in getting to the end? OK, that Job is completely unrelated.

In either case, I think I’ve done my job here.

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Etymologists are wary of March Madness.

No, it’s not the term bracketology, describing the art, science, and ritual of filling out one’s tournament bracket, which word induces many a cringe. (I, for one, find it to be a perfectly fine coinage.) It’s the inevitable utterance, “There goes my bracket,” issued in resignation when an upset fells one’s lovingly, inevitably wrought bracket.

See, we avert our eyes, for a bracket is, etymologically speaking, a “codpiece.”


Bracket (16th century) took the form bragget in Old English, referring to a “support in architecture” (Weekley). Skeat specifies it as a “corbel”–not the champagne (that’s with a k), nor Microsoft’s typeface, but one of these:

A Venetian corbel, courtesy of Wikipedia.

This bragget comes from the French braguette, meaning “codpiece” or “codpiece armor.” (How important you are, little r: Je voudrais un café et une braguette). As Skeat explains, bracket was “[s]o named from the resemblance to the front part of a pair of breeches, as formerly made.” In the 15th century, men wore separate hose, one for each leg, along with drawers. The crotch, though, needed a bit more protection and concealment. Enter the codpiece. Protection and concealment gave way to fashion statements, and the codpiece served to, emphasize, shall we say. Imagine, if you will, the above corbel in profile.

Forget Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar bracket contest.  Tied with its little bow, I think Henry VIII’s beats out anything even David Bowie could offer within this “winning bracket”:

Henry VIII keeping a straight face. Image courtesy of The Daily Mail online.

The French braguette is a diminutive of brague (14th century), or “pants” or “breeches,” believed to be Gaulish in origin, perhaps in the form of *braca. Speaking of Gaulish, learn a little bit more about Gaulish and other Celtic languages on my latest guest post at Lexicolatry.

Even in the Romance languages, though, the codpiece was used as an architectural metaphor. Brague also referred to a “mortise.” And Spanish, for example, has bragueta, naming both “codpiece” and “bracket.”

Borrowing from the proposed Celtic origin, Latin has bracae for “pants” and Germanic forms (such as Old English’s brec, whence “breeches”) are traced back to a Proto-Germanic *brokiz, maybe from a Proto-Indo-European root for “break” (*bhreg-). Partridge attempts a Proto-Indo-European *brac-, “to encircle” or “gird on.” Perhaps there is an argument for this, given that early codpiece technology featured a kind of belt the wearer strapped on.

How about those typographical brackets: [ ], { }, ( ), and < >, among others? These are “from resemblance to some double supports in carpentry,” as Weekley tells us. The ODEE dates the usage back to the 18th century, noting that, in the 17th century, they were called braces. Believed to have influenced senses of bracket, brace we can trace back to the Latin brachhium, for “arm,” from Greek brakhion, for the same.

As for the origins of the kinds of tournament bracket we see in the NCAA, Slate magazine points us to an 1851 London Chess tournament. Below is a diagram of from the competition, as Howard Staunton provides in his 1873 account, The Chess Tournament. I think the image gives us an effective visual etymology, if you will:


Linguist and language commentator Ben Zimmer gives us more on “brackets.”

I suppose the real winner in all this is the human imagination–and its ability to add little spice or color to something as mundane into as, you know, that thing-y that holds up that bookshelf on your wall. 

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