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shameless pleading






For peanuts.

Dear Word Detective: My paternal grandfather and father both used the term “work-brickle,” usually to describe what a lazy person wasn’t, as in “Don’t count on it being done today — that feller ain’t exactly workbrickle.” Somehow that term popped back into my head the other day, and I asked Unca Google where it came from. Unc had no real idea. So I’m turning to you. Do you know where the term “work-brickle” or “workbrickle” comes from? — Gregory Bloom.

workbrickle08.pngAh yes, good old Unca Google, bottomless well of … something. We’re not sure what. Sometimes searching Google produces quick and accurate answers, but much of the time it’s like peering into a huge room where everyone is shouting nonsense and bouncing off the walls.

As you probably gathered from the few mentions of “workbrickle” you found in your Googling, the word seems to be a major mystery. Everyone agrees on its meaning, “willing and eager to work; industrious,” but no one seems to know where it came from. One source suggests that “to brickle” a horse is antiquated slang for “breaking” it, i.e., taming it enough to be ridden. Thus “workbrickle,” goes the theory, would mean “resigned to or recognizing the necessity of work.” It’s a nice theory, and it may even be true, but I think the origin of “workbrickle” lies elsewhere.

While the Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of “workbrickle” or “brickle” as a verb, it does have an entry for “work-brittle” with the same meaning of “eager to work, industrious,” dating back to 1647. This is obviously the same word, “brickle” being the Scots and English dialect form of “brittle” and a form common in the Midwestern US and Appalachia. But as far as the origin of “work-brittle” goes, the OED throws up its hands, noting that the “brittle” part appears to be the same word as “brittle” meaning “easily broken,” but “the sense-development remains obscure” (i.e., “beats us”). No dictionary of slang or dialectical terms I own offers any further information.

At this point in my research I sat for a while staring at my computer screen, and then suddenly realized where I had encountered the “brittle-brickle” pair before. “Peanut brittle,” easily breakable (thus “brittle”) hard toffee containing peanuts, is also known, in the US, as “peanut brickle.” There are other sorts of “brickle,” containing cashews, chocolate bits, etc, but in each the featured element is embedded in a sheet of not-terribly-exciting hard toffee “brittle.” The essence of a “brittle” is that added ingredient.

Now, it seems to me that if one were to take “brickle” as a metaphor for “full of” or “characterized by large amounts of,” then someone said to be “workbrickle” (perhaps originally “a workbrickle”) would be full of eagerness and dedication to the job, much as we speak of a “workaholic” today but without the negative overtones. Granted, it’s just a theory, but I find it very tasty.

43 comments to Work-brickle

  • My mother and her family used “work-brickle” a lot. Their family was from Indiana and of Irish and English descent.

  • Edward

    Interestingly, the only person I’ve ever heard use the term “work-brittle” was my mother, and she was born and raised in Indiana, but her ancestors were from Kentucky and were German, not English.

  • vicki willis

    My family used the words work-brickle or work brittle, usually in the words of someone not being very work-brittle or being lazy. Never really knew what it meant, my family was from Indiana and Kentucky.

  • April

    My grandmother used the term “work brickle” to describe the sudden onset of a zest for housecleaning, especially that experienced by some women at certain times of the month or by pregnant women shortly before the baby is due.

  • FRED

    My parents were of German descent, southwest Ohio and I’ve heard this term also as someone that was Lazy.

  • belle

    My grandfather termed me as “work brickle” recently. It’s a great word. He heard the term from his mother, origin Scotland, then landed in NC, and made way to Powell, TN. but again he said she was the only one he ever heard say the term, and not sure where it came from.

  • Linda

    Appalachian usage is ambiguous. My family used work brickle (brittle) to mean lazy, perhaps “broken by work,” but regional dictionaries “work brickle/brittle” is used both ways: industrious or not so.

  • janet

    My mother was from Jasper, Alabama near Birmingham. I always remember her using this term out in the garden when we were hoeing. She used the term “work brittle” to describe someone who had learned to work and accomplish what needed to be done. If someone had reached this point, they were deemed to be “work brittle”. If someone was lazy or not “broken in to hard work”, they were not “work brittle”.

    She was born in 1921 and her ancestors came over from Ireland in 1730. I am sure she learned this term from them. They were prosperous, hard working farmers.

  • My Mother used the phrase “He/she is not very work brickle”, meaing not a very good worker…a little lazy. She was born in 1910 in Wyoming County, West Virginia from German and English descent.

  • Jean

    My grandmother used the term as a noun with a “-y” sound as in “workey brickle”. My memory of her use was to describe herself when she was eager and bustling around working – she was a “workey brickle.” I don’t know how she spelled the term though.

  • Jean

    I should add that Grandma was born in 1904 in a small town in Iowa.

  • Mary

    I just heard it from a 63 year old co-worker speaking about two of our younger co-workers; I guessed at what she meant. She was born and raised in southeastern Kansas – I just thought it was an old country term.

  • R Madding

    I just looked this up as my mom used to say this perhaps too much back in the ’50’s when we were kids. “You’re not very work-brittle today.” And it meant all you said above. Our family has a Welsh/Scot/Pennsylvania Dutch/English background and we grew up in SE Illinois near Vincennes, IN

    I haven’t heard it since and those I have recently asked have never heard the phrase.

  • Debby

    The term “work brittle” is usually used in rural West Texas as in a person is not work brittle meaning he is lazy.

    I think the term may have come from tradesmen working with metals. In working with fine metals, such as silver, the more and harder you work it, the more brittle it becomes until it finally breaks from overwork.

  • dale mead lawrence

    I remember encountering the word in the novel “Friendly Persuasion” by Jessamyn West about the Quakers. The father of the family said that the hired man was not “work brickle,” meaning that he was lazy.

  • Ben of the North

    “work-brittle” is a metallurgical and manufacturing term, for the hardening/embrittlement that happens when metals are formed under pressure. Hammering or pressing a piece (especially in stages) makes the metal harder, but in that perverse way of things, the brittleness also increases.

    This can also happen to a part that is designed to take impacts as part of it’s operation: loss of elasticity over time, until it fractures. Work-hardening is the process, or verb, work-brittle is the condition after the process.

    FWIW, I’m not an engineer, but I’ve heard these terms in use from manufacturing and aerospace engineers.

  • Mark

    Here in southern Indiana and Kentucky the term “work brickle” would be used to discribe a person who does not work very hard or does not apply himself to a task for long; lazy, in other words. As in, “He’s freindly but the boy is work brickle”. To my mind it sounds like it discribes a person who “breaks off” from work easily. The people above who have the opposite meaning applied to this term, perhaps, has misunderstood. To say someone is “not” work brickle would mean flexable to work and so the opposite of the way dale mead lawrence read it in “Friendly Persuasion”. In knife making my uncle taught be careful to not “brickle” the steal or it will break easily implying that a brickle knife does not work well and breaks easily.

  • Kat

    I’m 10 generation Appalachian of Scots-Irish descent. My paternal grandmother who spoke with what people now say is the Appalachian dialect. I only ever heard her use the term “work brickle” in a negative way as in “Someone was not very work brickle” meaning they were lazy. Her highest compliment was being a hard worker so consequently she was also quick to let you know if you weren’t very work brickle in her eyes.

  • Platt

    My grandmother was born in 1890 in northeastern Pennsylvania, of English, French and German descent, and married a man of English descent, Quaker background. She did not use the word to describe people, but rather would say Today is a work brittle day, meaning a day when the weather and sork conditions made one feel energetic and a lot was being accomplished.

  • Beverly

    I know this thread has been up quite a long time but I just found it today. Sitting at my desk on a dreary February day I told myself I was not feeling very “work brickle” today. It is the term my grandmother used for someone who wasn’t working very hard. In her conversations, someone was either “work brickle” or not “work brickle.” She was born in Johnson County, Indiana in 1892. Everyone in the region she lived her whole life understood the term and all of my life with her I understood the term but never knew its origin. Today, again not being very work brickle, I dedcided to “Google” it. The explanations given fit well with how my grandmother used the term. Thank you.

  • Garrol

    This phrase had not entered my mind for 50 years until today when out of the blue I said it in regards to a person who was obviously lazy. I remember my Irish/English family used it all the time when I was growing up. My ancestors came from Ireland in the 1800’s and settled in Virginia then moved to Missouri. It was a common phrase in my area of Missouri. I thought I was just wasting my time looking it up and was surprised to find others interested as I was.

  • Scott

    My parents used the phrase “not very work brickle” to mean the same as stated above, someone lazy or not work hardened. As someone previously stated, I don’t know how they would have spelled it, but it sounded like brickle. As I got older I started thinking about the term and wondered if they were meaning brittle when they said brickle. It’s true that brittle can mean that it is hard like ceramic and shatters easily, but I think they meant it in the context of working a metal like a blacksmith until it gets harder and tougher. If a person works on a regular basis, they will be work hardened, or toughened up. If they don’t, they will not be very work brickle. My parents were born in southern Indiana around 1915.

  • Stina

    My grandparents, Welsh and Irish I think, used “work brickle”. That was in west Tennessee.

    I still use the word because there’s nothing quite like it for describing someone who won’t throw themselves into the work. “Lazy” doesn’t capture the full sense.

  • Donna

    I’m 72 and have heard all my life the phrase used by my family in Indiana. We also have the Scotch-Irish heritage from Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina. It is so very fascinating how terms are handed down by the generations. My grandsons are 8th generation Hoosiers. I guess because hard working pioneers had to work hard, the phrase was most certainly a compliment. It is amazing how often Indiana is mentioned in the previous posts.

  • Bradley Buhro

    Just encountered the term “workbrickle” for the first time today, occasioning my visit here. It was used by a lifelong Central Indiana (Hancock County) resident in the sentence “He’s not exactly workbrickle.” When I asked what she meant by that, she meant he was a lazy sort, disinclined to labor. Having been raised in far Northeastern Indiana, I was unfamiliar with the term.

  • Charlene Rider

    I just found this thread today, after my 91 year old mom said it. I told her not to work too hard in the garden today and she said, “Don’t worry. I’m not very work brickle anymore”. I had never heard that term before. She was born and raised in Owen County, Indiana–German/English/Celtic Britain descent. What a cool word is work-brickle and thanks for all the interesting discussion.

  • Jackie

    I use the term frequently. For example just this morning when I was in a mood to really clean house! I wrote a brief email to a friend mentioning I was work brickle this morning. I learned it from my grandma who was born in the late 1800s. She was work brickle until the very end of her life. I hope I am too! It is a good feeling.

  • Tricia Ann

    From southwestern West Virginia here. I’m 64 years old and grew up with the term work brickle, meaning as many have said, “a hard worker; inclined to work.”

  • Barbara

    I’m 64 years old and my grandmother used this phrase quite often as in “Kelly is a great person but not too work brickle” meaning that the person was lazy. She was born in Western TN and raised in Western KY and of British decent. I’ve never heard anyone else use it and no one seems to have heard it before. Which is what made me look it up. Glad to see that others do know the phrase. I’ll use it more often now and pass it on to future generations.

  • Denise

    My grandmother often described my younger brother as “not very work-brickle”. He was an Air Force fighter pilot in Desert Storm , is now a successful commercial pilot and was so dear to Grandma throughout her life. HOWEVER, all of my brother’s excellent qualities could never earn him Grandma’s accolade of being declared a truly work- brickle person. Grandma used the term to describe those individuals who could relish a task, seek a chore rather than shirk it and take pride in any dull job that was well done. I moved away from the banks of the Wabash over 50 years ago, but I stll recognize a work-brickle person when I meet one . Grandma was born of Scotch/Welsh roots near Terre Haute Indiana and I’ll always love her for teaching me the value of that simple term. The Indiana connection is delightful.

  • Laurel

    This morning, after making a long list of chores, I told myself that they could all be done if I were work-brickle today. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard anyone use this term in many years, and wondered if it was a rare or a regional word. My parents used it frequently with “you are work-brickle” being high praise, and “you aren’t feeling work brickle” being disapproval. They were both born in 1922. My mother was raised in south-central Kentucky (second generation Irish, Scottish, Welsh decent); my father was raised in southern Indiana (second generation German). It’s interesting that the two meanings of work-brickle are exactly opposite. Lazy or “work-broken”, like metal which becomes brittle and breaks if it’s overworked, makes the most sense. However, I’ve never heard it used with this meaning; I’ve only heard work-brickle used with the meaning of someone who is energetically and willingly accomplishing a lot of work.

  • Jo allerton

    Hi – my mother (born in 1900) always used this term to describe a lazy person “not work brattle”. – maybe by the time this expression had crossed the Atlantic the word ‘brittle’ was pronounced ”brattle’.

  • Joe

    I am nearly 70 and grew up on a farm in Southwestern Wisconsin. My mother and her mother used the term “work brittle” to mean that some could do a lot of energetic and hard work. If someone was not work brittle they were not hard workers. “Work brittle” never meant lazy or shiftless.

    She and my father grew up in rural areas that were about fifteen miles apart. While my mother and her mother used the term, my father and his mother rarely, if ever, used the term “work brittle” and other slang terms that my mother used.

    Both sides of my mother’s side of the family was of German (Pennsylvania Dutch), English, and Scottish origin although they spoke German until as late as my grandmother’s generation. Over the years they had lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio before Wisconsin in the 185os. .

    My father’s side were German (Pennsylvania in the 1750s), English, and Scots-Irish. I don’t remember any of them speaking German in the 20th Century. Over the years they had lived in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana before going to Wisconsin in the 1840s or 1850s.

    Similar backgrounds, same region, but the term was used primarily by my mother’s side of the family.

  • Joannie

    I grew up hearing work brickle from my Mom. German and English heritage, and from Ohio. I love the expression, and the reaction I get when I use it. Mom would use it the way so many others here did/do.

  • Sally

    Interesting how many Hoosiers are commenting on this! Southern Indiana here, work-brickle is a word I learned from my father and paternal grandmother who are from the Madison co. Indiana area and the term only applied to the hardest of workers. I’ve always aspired to be worthy of the appellation work brickle.

  • Herb Washburn

    I used the term ‘work brickle’ about myself today and, although my wife grew up in northern Kentucky about a mile from me, she had never heard it. I was surprised to see that so many people from the southern Indiana and Kentucky area remembered hearing it. I usually heard it in reference to a temporary condition, rather than a permanent laziness. In the spring when we started to work putting out our tobacco crop It seemed to be hard to get started working in the fields again. My parents would say “You’re just not work brickle yet”. After a few days it seemed to go much easier, so to me it meant that I became work brickle. This was in the 40s and 50s, so the term has to go back a long way.

  • Susan

    Just heard this term used today. A friend used it. She’s 47 years old. It was a term her mother always said. Her mother is in her early 70’s. They were both raised in Southern Illinois near the Indiana/Kentucky borders.

  • Mardi

    I just wandered onto this site today because like many of you, I used it in the sentence, “He’s not all that work-brickle.” and my friend hadn’t heard the term. I decided to try to find if it was a hold-over from my grandparents German language, or if it came to my family by another route. Of course, I’m still not sure, but in our family it was always used with a negative modifier as in “not work-brickle” and meant someone who while perhaps not actually lazy was not very dedicated to work. It was also sometimes used in a sense that led me to believe the speaker was using understatement to describe someone who was profoundly lazy. As if they were saying, “He’s not really work-brickle.” about someone who wouldn’t “hit a lick at a snake if it was about to bite.”

  • Ray

    I heard my mother use the term “He isn’t very work brickle” and she was referring to a lazy person. She was of German and Scots-Irish descent. She was born in 1917 in Tazewell County, VA and lived there until she died at age 86.

  • Cathy Smith

    Well I grew up all in the country with country folks going way back from Texas-Oklahoma around Idabel, Ok. and Cunningham Texas. We have always used the term work brickle all my life and it is a slur. The term he ain’t work brickle means he ain’t broke by working he is just a lazy mooch or bum etc. and usually used to talk about the son in laws or daughter in laws in the family! My Family goes back to the the Barbarians of Scotland and the Vikings of the Scandinavian area and then comes back to Texas YeeHaw!!

  • Nikki

    I appreciate this post and all the comments. My mother used this term when describing someone that is not on the industrious side (not very work brickle). I thought of it today and it made me want to research it as I really only recall her using it. She was a wealth of knowledge and full of random terms and idioms. She was born in KY in 1948. RIP Mom.

  • Denny

    Grandparents were from Campton, Kentucky. 1915ish. They used the term work brickler when it applied.

  • Doug

    I believe #16 is close. Blacksmiths hammering hot shoes were not only shaping them to fit, but hammering (working) hot iron changes the crystal structure of iron. Making it stronger against compressive stresses (say, a horse standing on it) but less strong against tensile stresses (brittle). By the way, I’m from south IN also and always wondered about source of term but came to learn a little about materials at Purdue engineering school.

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