The thing about brooding is, chicks love it.

No, seriously. A hen sits and broods, keeping her eggs warm, and those little chicks grow and hatch so happily, like little fluffy yellow balls of freed sunshine. No wonder brooding is such a happy word – as the Oxford English Dictionary says, it’s a word for something that “cherishes … , hatches, or incubates.”

Um. You look skeptical. …Yes?

Robert Pattinson? What?

Who said Robert De Niro? 

Marlon Brando? James Dean? Christian Bale? Ralph Fiennes? Matt Dillon? What’s going on here? Not one of them is a chicken! Total bros, every one!

And yet.

If you see the word brooding in a magazine or on a website, it’s not very likely to be talking about incubating eggs, is it? For that matter, even though it comes from brood, as in ‘family of young animals, especially ones that hatch’, often seen in brood of vipers and similar phrases, there seems to be no direct connection between its usual objects and younglings (except, of course, in that one movie involving Hayden Christensen).

Gonna need to think about this for a few moments here.

Of course, brooding isn’t just applied to the kind of actors who make every other guy on the planet seethingly resentful. It’s also applied to singers. And, more to the point, it’s applied to songs, and paintings, and even architecture. It’s an aesthetic effect: lowering, gloomy, moody, pensive. Like Hamlet (as long as Hamlet is being played by the right actor). But… how did something that started out so warm and fuzzy end up so cool and scratchy?

It’s two things. When a hen broods, she sits above the eggs, overhanging them. And also, more to the point, she sits there and just, you know, thinks. Each egg is like a thought – or perhaps, since they shall be hatched, a plot. Oh, and you’re probably well advised not to bother her; brooding hens are very protective. 

So you get brooding skies, with brooding clouds that overhang; and you get the sense of brooding as meaning ‘sitting and thinking’ – or, anyway, ‘thinking seriously for a long time and not doing anything else’. And if you’re brooding, you’re probably brooding over something: your misfortunes, your unhappiness, or, as Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “the dark prospect of approaching poverty.” Definitely more vipers than chicks.

Where, by the way, does this word brooding – or, rather, its root brood – come from? It’s from an old Germanic root, bro-, which has to do with warmth or heat and with breeding.

Which, I guess, is fitting, since all those brooding actor bros are, in the eyes of their fans, pretty hot… and suitable for breeding, too, probably.

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