The shining poetry of brag

A few weeks ago the word of the week was scold which we found had its origin from Icelandic poets with sharp tongues. The old poets may also have given us the word brag although its history is a lot less clear. The evolution of brag happened mostly outside English which makes the story a little more difficult to tell.

English contains a string of words with the form –ag including bag, brag, crag, drag, fag, flag, gag, hag, jag, lag, nag, rag, sag, shag, slag, snag, stag, swag, tag and wag. This –ag form existed in Old English but there was a shift in pronunciation to the form –aw in Middle English.

Therefore most –ag words in English have been borrowed back from other Germanic languages (with a few exceptions). Stag and shag are the only words that come from Old English. Crag was borrowed from Celtic, slag comes from Low German, and most of the others came from Scandinavian. Brag is a common word in many of the older Germanic languages so its origin is not known.

Some argue that brag may come from the Celtic or Gaulish brâca, a kind of trousers (from which the English word breeches comes) which produced the Provençal word braga, meaning to wear rich clothes and a Swiss dialect word braguâ, to boast or strut. This makes good logical sense but brag was in English before it was found in Swiss or Provençal so the sequence doesn’t work.

Brag existed in old Scandinavian languages in several forms. They give some very strong clues as to how it may have evolved. The most likely origin for brag is from a meaning for brave. In Old Icelandic braga meant to flicker and was used in referring to the northern lights (aurora borealis). Derivatives in other Germanic languages mean to shimmer, shine and to sparkle. It was perhaps from this meaning that the meaning to show-off may have developed.

Bragr was the word for poem in Old Icelandic. Bragi was the god of poetry. Bragi was one of Odin’s sons and was renowned for wisdom, the fluency and skill of his speech and for his long beard. The most important form of poetry at the time of the myth-making was skaldic poetry (from where we get the English word scold), which sometimes involved poetry duels where the poets would show off their skills.

The relationships between the early meanings of brag can only be speculated about but it is tempting to think that poetry, which at that time was not written but performed, was a great shining spectacle where the great Icelandic poets showed off their oratory skills.