As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.
To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-American, leaf lettuce, Megalonyx, N.Y., Riesling, sanction? The man who gave us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has also left us an incredible record of words in the English language.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In this one passage, this single sentence, of the Declaration of Independence—whose adoption on July 4, 1776 Americans commemorate today—Thomas Jefferson gives a new nation, a new democracy, its immortal, founding words.
But Jefferson’s words have left many other marks. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attributes to Jefferson over 100 quotations that provide the first evidence of a word in English and nearly 400 quotations that provide the earliest record of a particular meaning. His breadth is truly impressive, ranging from architecture (rooflet, 1825; remodeling, 1785) and botany (leaf lettuce, 1795; rubber tree, 1826) to wines (Médoc, 1793; Riesling, 1788) and extinct giant sloths (Megalonyx, 1796; megatherium, 1797).
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.
m ∫ r ∫
Forget fireworks: Nothing says “Fourth of July” like bunting. Gazebos and porches, ready your railings for some…cloths for sifting flour?
The OED first cites bunting in 1742 in a naval context, naming the worsted cloth used to make flags. Now, bunting can name an individual flag and flags more generally. I tend to associate bunting with the semi-circular flags displayed during the US’s Independence Day.
So, why bunting? The origin is unknown, but many have conjectured that it derives from a dialectical form of bunt, “to sift meal.” Another term for this is bolt, as in a bolting-cloth whose mesh weave served as a sieve for flour–and, apparently, as a fabric for flags.
In addition to flour, your kitchen may house a tammy cloth, which some think derives from the French étamine, a “bolting-cloth” and “bunting.” This word, related to stamen, has by analogy inspired the aforementioned derivation of bunting, though the OED doubts that it makes it through the sieve, so to speak.
Instead, we might not look to the material of bunting but its pattern, such as the red, white, and blue of the US’s patriotic banners. German has bunt and Dutch bount for “parti-coloured,” the OED notes.
As for bunt? It may be a form of bolt (or boult), “to sift,” which might be related to the word bureau, originally named for a dark woolen cloth, later the desk on which it was laid. Ernest Klein, however, takes bunt back to the Latin bonus (sifted through *bonitare, “to make good,” which was then filtered through Old French).
Amber waves of grain? Federal bureaucracy? The good that comes with any public holiday? Whatever its origin, the etymology of bunting has got America covered on July 4th.