An etymological tricolor: red, white, and blue

Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.

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.

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Its flag may be red, white, and blue, but the US is properly a land of many colors. (Pixabay)

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Mammoth cheese, one nation, and shagging: Thomas Jefferson in the OED

To count to ten when angry, doll-baby, Irish-Americanleaf 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).

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“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776,” Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

m ∫ r ∫

independence

Independence Day celebrates the United States’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence (from Great Britain, in case you’ve never heard of this country called the United States) on July 4, 1776.  Celebrants mark the day with parades, barbecues, fireworks–and, if you’re me, etymologies, because nothing says “stars and stripes” quite like a good word origin.

I, for one, am going to declare independence independent from all its morphological bunting. That is, if we strip down to its root, what do we find?

First, here, in- means “not,” so we are left with “not dependence.” Then we have -ence, a suffix that forms abstract nouns from verbs, leaving us with “the condition of being dependent.” It varies with the French -ance (Latin, –entia), with French shifting Latin’s e to an a, though the endings are doing the same work. English has a fanfare of words like appearance in some cases and word like existence in other cases, all depending, shall I say, on which words were altered back from the French spelling to conform with the Latin spelling in Modern English’s early days.

So, now we are looking at depend, which, again, is Latin via French. The Latin dependēre, literally meaning “to hang down,” with de- denoting “down.”  At this point, we have Latin’s pendēre, “to hang,” cousin to pendere, “to weigh,” depending on the length of the vowel. (The bar above the e in pendēre is called a “macron,” signifying, essentially, a long vowel.)

The root, then, is pendwhich is hanging down from the Proto-Indo-European (s)pen-, “to draw, stretch, spin.” Down Germanic lines, the root gave English spin and span and a whole host of related words. Down the Italic line, with some vowel changes and some suffixes to the root, we get words like pound and ponderous. Of course, Latin’s very own pend- (in both forms) produces everything from appendix to compensate to pensive to stipend. Indeed, metaphor is having an impressive fireworks display with all that it has done with this root.

And then we have spangle, as in that star-spangled banner, the American flag and title of the US national anthem. (I could see the word becoming fossilized in the phrase; it’s certainly the only context I ever hear or see it in.)

 

The star-spangled banner said to have inspired Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem and, later, US national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Anyways, spangled is “decorated with spangles,” little pieces of glittering metal or the decorative like. The word most likely comes from the Middle Dutch spange, a “clasp” or “brooch,” with the notion of ornament as the connecting sense. Etymologists aren’t sure, but this spange may point back to a Germanic base, *spango-, a derivative of (s)pen-.

For my compatriots, Happy Fourth. But we all know what we’re really celebrating is that the holiday falls on a Friday. And nothing says “America” like a 3-day weekend.