On the front of it, this word is as bold as brass – or as the waitress in a brasserie. The sound of it, however, puts it closer to Brazil, a country (coincidentally?) known for the display and enlargement of those things a brassiere supports. But, now, what does a brassiere support? I mean, we know, we know, but francophones may well ask, “What not arms?” French for “arm” is bras, after all. And in fact the term originated in French as a word for a soldier’s arm guard, and then for a military breastplate. Its farewell to arms came with its transference to a type of corset (not corsair, which would have a coarse air; the firearms involved now are not cannons but perhaps bazookas). Its use in English came about in the early 20th century, and the modern object to which it refers was patented in France (as un soutien-gorge) in 1904 by Herminie Cadolle and in America in 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacob. Oh, and Otto Titzling? So sorry. A hoax, a confabulation by one Wallace Rayburn in his 1971 canard Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra. Mr. Rayburn has made boobs of many people, including the devisers of Trivial Pursuit. (They also went for the red herring on Thomas Crapper, but that’s another scoop.) But… ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, bra! (NB the bra in that song is actually a form of brother – the song is about a West Indian immigrant to Britain and ob-la-di, ob-la-da is a Yoruba expression for “life goes on.” Like a brassiere, I suppose.)

2 responses to “brassiere

  1. I suspect that Brazil is a Phoenician place name based on their word for iron, BaRZeL, and that “brazil wood”, a hard red wood later used for making violins, is derived from the place name and not vice versa.

    • It seems pretty well attested that the Brazil the country is named after the wood, anyway (the wood has been named, from Latin through the romance languages to English, since before the discovery of the new world; Chaucer mentions it in the Canterbury Tales). The open question is where the name of the wood came from – it came to Latin from somewhere, but it’s not certain where. It would be interesting if it could be traced to the Phoenecian. The wood is known for the dye that can be made from it, so I don’t know what the iron connection would be – rust, perhaps?

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