I tend to think of this word as one of the bits sliding about in the widget drawer from which developers pull pieces for names of neighbourhoods. It’s jumbled in with wood and cliff and cedar and side and bine and land and thorn and lea and crest and vale and ridge and maple and oak and glen and bank and fair and field and gate and ville and dale and hill and park and mead and view and bay and green and hurst and may and mount and summer and sunny and land… Every time you’re building a new neighbourhood, if you don’t want to go ahead and name it after whatever you bulldozed to build it, just reach into that drawer and grab two pieces. If you want to make it extra chi-chi, grab a third piece – or just tack heights on.
But my inclusion of brae may raise a few eyebrows. And not just because, unlike most of the other subdivision name sub-divisions (but like bine, lea, and hurst), its real-world meaning is generally unknown – I mean, who the heck cares, you see it and you know it’s a name on a map laid over intestinal streets built for bungalows and side-splits. No, also because it’s not actually that common even in suburb names. It just happens to show up in a couple of neighbourhoods in the city I grew up in and near, and in a couple of places not so far from where I live now. Braeside is a neighbourhood in Calgary and a small town in Ontario, and Cedarbrae is a neighbourhood in Calgary (right next to Braeside) and also one in Scarborough (which is now technically part of Toronto).
Well, as it happens, those neighbourhoods are named after things that can be found in both Calgary and Scarborough and not absolutely everywhere else. I don’t mean sides (everything has sides) and I don’t mean cedars (though it’s true for them too, mainly because there are quite a lot of different and only vaguely related trees that people call cedar). I mean braes.
A brae is a geographical feature named after something on your body. No, I don’t mean your chest (that’s a bra, eh). Have you heard of the brow of a hill? Brow comes from Anglo-Saxon breaw or bræw. The same source gave us brae. But brae doesn’t now refer to your brow; it just names a steep hillside, typically above a river. If you drive into Calgary from the west, you have a great view of some such on the south side of the Bow River; if you sail into Scarborough, you can see the bluffs, which are of a similar sort.
But neither of those braes is by a braeneighbourhood! Cedarbrae in Scarborough is north of the bluffs, though I suppose there are some not-so-striking braes on Highland Creek. Cedarbrae and Braeside in Calgary don’t actually have any braes in them – they’re among the flattest neighbourhoods in a not-very-flat city. That’s ironic enough to raise an eyebrow… until you remember that neighbourhood names can more often be relied on to tell you what’s not there (at least not anymore). If, that is, you pay them any semantic heed at all.