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Embrace Your Braces

We often think of brilliant etymological issues while on the verge of falling asleep, and then on waking, the previous night's thoughts are forgotten beyond recall.  Sometimes we are lucky and one of us grabs a pen from the nightstand and makes some notes.  That is what happened in this case, when we started thinking about the word embrace.

It was fairly obvious to us that the -brace element is cognate with bra (from French brassiere) and Spanish brazo, ultimately meaning "arm".  But what other words might be related?  What else was there to it?  And where did English get arm?  (We'll get to arm later.)

It all starts with the Greeks, at least in the written record.  They differentiated between the upper arm and lower arm.  They recognized that the lower arm (olene, cognate with ulna) was longer than the upper arm, so they named the upper arm brakhion meaning "shorter".  When imported into Latin, the Greek brakhion became brachium, which gave the Romance languages their words for "arm", such as the Italian braccio and Spanish brazo.  (Spanish explorers in Texas gave the Brazos River its name because it was seen to have many "arms".)

In French, brachium became bras which means "arm" and not "brassieres," but the words are related. It all started in the Medieval period when the French created the word braciere to refer to a piece of armor for the arm. By the 17th century the "armor" sense had shifted to one of clothing, so that braciere, now altered to brassiere, referred to a "bodice".  It was from that meaning that the "support for the breasts" notion arose, and English borrowed the word by 1910 with that meaning. It was first shortened to bra in the 1930s. Incidentally, although brassiere sounds French and has a French origin, it is not used in French. The French word for brassiere is soutien-gorge (literally "throat support"). That sounds exceedingly coy and euphemistic to our ears, especially when compared to the German equivalent, Büstenhalter (literally "bust holder").

Brace is also an arm-related word.  It has an obsolete meaning of "arm of the sea".  It can also refer to armor covering the arms, a measure of length "representing the length of the extended arms" (OED), or a pair of anything (as humans have two arms).  The sense of "fasten" or "hold", as in the use of braces to mean "suspenders" for pants, or braces "holding" teeth, is thought to come from the notion of arms embracing or holding something.  To embrace, is, etymologically, to "en-arm" or to surround with one's arms.

Let's not forget bracelet.  It is the diminutive form of French bracel, something worn around the arm.  Then there is pretzel, which the OED thinks comes ultimately from Medieval Latin bracellus "bracelet", but there are other sources which think it refers to folded arms - the pretzel's shape seems to point to the latter explanation.

Remember when we mentioned that the Greek root of these "arm" words meant "shorter"?  Well, English took some of those "short" words, such as abbreviate, brevity, brief, and abridge, too.  Another related word is English merry. But that seems like a non-sequitur, doesn't it?  Morphologically, the similarity between merry and the Indo-European root of all of these words, mregh-u, is apparent, but how does a root meaning "short" give us merry?  The suggestion has been made that, since "time flies when you're having fun", the ancients equated enjoyment with the quick passage, or a seemingly short amount, of time.  Some other examples of this connection can be found in the German terms Kurzweil "pasttime, amusement" (literally "short while") and Langeweile "boredom" (literally "long while").

Now, we promised to talk about arm, didn't we?  It is common in the Germanic languages.  The Germanic root is *armoz, which is cognate with Latin armus "shoulder".  The Indo-European root is *ar- "to fit, to join", referring to the arm fitting into the shoulder, allowing the arm to pivot and move in myriad ways.

We can see that *ar- root turning up in arthritis "joint swelling" and similar  words such as articulated (literally "jointed") and arthropod, a fancy word for "bug" which literally means "jointed feet".  In English we see related words such as the verb arm "to take up arms", and the noun arms "weapons", words which derive from the Latin arma ("fittings", "tackle", "gear").  Armies are made of men bearing arms.  Even our armoire (from the French) refers to a cabinet where, originally, arms were kept.  Spanish armada "armed" and armadillo "little armored one" (have you ever seen an armadillo?) are also cognates.

Brace yourselves, you are not fully armed with this week's etymologies just yet.  Now it's time to read Words to the Wise!  Click the "Next Page" button below (after reading about how you can donate to TOWFI and noting the book store link below!). 

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