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shameless pleading


To bean, perhaps to clobber.

Dear Word Detective: Twice recently I have come across the word “brickbats” and the term “throwing brickbats” in the context of a large disturbance. I have tried numerous sources, but have not been able to come up with anything describing what a “brickbat” is, and why one would want to throw it. Any ideas? — Jerry Bacon.

Good question. I remember being puzzled by “brickbat” when I was a kid. Of course, I suppose I could have simply asked my parents, since they were both etymologists and in the business of answering such questions, but somehow I never got around to it.

Come to think of it, just while I’ve been writing this column I’ve been remembering my mother using the word “brickbat” fairly frequently, but until just now I couldn’t recall the context. She was, after all, a thoroughly non-violent person. But I now realize that she used the word in the phrase “hard as a brickbat,” often referring to a biscuit or bread that had gone stale. Oddly enough, that “brickbat as a measure of the staleness of bakery products” sense seems to be missing from all the dictionary definitions of the word.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, a “brickbat” is a piece or fragment of a standard building brick, usually less than half the size of a full brick but, according to brickbat purists, retaining one unbroken end of the brick. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “brickbat” has always been an instrument of social disorder: “It is the typical ready missile, where stones are scarce.” “Brickbat” is also a very old word, first found (so far) in print in 1563, used in a typically violent context (“She sent a brickbat after him, and hit him on the back”).

Brickbats must have been a popular means of self-expression in the 16th and 17th centuries, because by 1642 the poet John Milton was using the word in a figurative sense to mean “an uncomplimentary remark; a harsh criticism” (“I beseech ye friends, ere the brick-bats flye, resolve me and yourselves…”). Flinging bits of brick at your neighbor is pretty seriously illegal these days, of course, so this metaphorical meaning of “harshly critical comment” is now far more common than the literal sense.

But why a “bat”? “Bat” first appeared in Old English in the form “batte” meaning “cudgel or war club,” and developed a range of similar “club” senses as it evolved, eventually including that of our familiar baseball or cricket “bat.” But in Middle English the word also came to mean “lump or chunk of something,” and this is the sense that developed into the “bat” of “brickbat.” Interestingly, that “lump” sense of “bat” also came to mean the lumps of cotton wadding (used in, for example, quilts) that we know today as “batting.”

By the way, all these senses of “bat” are completely unrelated to the “flying critter” kind of “bat,” which traces its name to a Scandinavian root meaning “animal that flaps.”

14 comments to Brickbat

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    Perchance, not perhaps.
    “To sleep, perchance to dream– aye, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.”

  • Calvin Lawrence

    My mother always used Brickbat in terms of something very hard…old, stale bread or bakery…almost always in the kitchen or SOMEONE else’s kitchen.

  • tom

    If you’ve ever been in the presence of a flight of bats flying fast and straight at you and also been in a stone throwing fight, you would see the meaning of “brickbat”.

  • rob gundaker

    Mr.Bacon, regarding your question on why anyone would want to throw a brick or piece of a brick, I have a question for you. You didn’t grow up in the city, did you? Anyone who has grown up in the inner-city will tell you it is a rough life, neighborhoods are very clannish and the city i was raised in for instance, Philly PA. my neighborhood was and is FISHTOWN, bricks littered the sidewalks. Anyway let me shorten this, fist fights breakout, in the city there is no such thing as a fair fight, you do what you have to in order to survive. Now they just shoot eachother, but when i was young, there was a saying in my neighborhood “IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, BRICK ‘EM”

  • cousin jake

    A ‘brick bat’ is a flat piece of wood used in the making of hand made bricks. A rectangular brick sized wooden box with no top or bottom is used as a mould. The mould is placed on top of one wooden bat and the mould is filled with clay. The mould is banged on the bench to ensure that there are no air pockets in the brick. As the mould is then eased off the clay, a second wooden bat is placed on top of the brick shaped lump of clay enabling it to be picked up and moved to a drying rack. The brick is placed on its side and the bats are removed ready for the next brick.

    The expression ‘off your own bat’ simply refers to making bricks using one’s own brick bats. The bricks were produced ‘off your own bat’.

    Brick making predates cricket by several centuries and is often quoted as the derivation of the term simply because derivations have to relate to the first written evidence.

    Brick making by hand was a very common activity which employed a great many people so brick bats would have been plentiful. Throwing a brick bat was far less destructive than throwing half-bricks. This also ties in with Calvin Lawrence’s mother’s use of the term ‘as hard as a brick bat’ used when describing stale biscuits and bread. The brick bat is about the same thickness as a home made biscuit or a slice of bread.

  • mary

    Brickbats make lovely garden paths. Williamsburg in particular has some beautiful ones. I wish I knew a good source for brickbats to make paths.

  • As a young child we used to play a game we called “Brickbat”. We used a broom handle and cut it to the length of about 30″. Then for missles we would cut the broom stick into short pieces of about 12″ long.
    Then we would lean these pieces on a brick , one at a time, of course, then tap the end of a piece with the broom handle which would make it fly up to baseball heigth. Then we would strike the piece as hard as possible which would make it fly for a very long distance. Then we would pace off the distance to the piece. The person who hit it the furthest won the contest. It’s a great game and cost practically nothing to set up and play. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone playing this game before or since.

  • Richard Katz

    Go to any demolition company and go to any of their jobs where a brick building is being torn down. A wall comes down , and there are pieces of wall large and small lying around on the ground. There are a FEW bricks in good condition, ready for resale as used brick; and there are quite a few pieces of broken brick, ready for the landfill or as a soil amendment after they have been crushed — the “brickbats” you discuss,the “piece or fragment of a broken building brick …” But MOST of the brick is in what EVERYBODY connected with the demolition trade or the used building supplies trade calls “brickbats” — shards of brick walls, which are trucked to a yard somewhere offsite, where a platoon of experienced workmen knock them apart and then knock the mortar off them, resulting in nice neat stacks of “clean” brick. Brickbats are valuable; used clean brick goes for more than new brick. I have seen at least one building (in Kyoto) where they built it out of new brick that had somehow been fired to look like clean used brick! That’s what the plans called for but they couldn’t get ahold of the used brick in the quantity required, of an orange shade.
    Of course brickbats coming right off the demolished building are not very salable, but it would be very very unusual for them to be just sent to the landfill. I can’t imagine that. Like I said, everybody in the demolition trade knows all about this.
    I know all about it only because I once rented out part of my trucking yard to a demolition company to clean bricks in. It’s a terribly messy affair, I can assure you: the mortar dust is very bad; the debris is all over the place when they are done, and they are a pretty rough bunch of guys. On the other hand, to see a guy wield a big bar of aluminum bop bop bop on one brick after another so deftly knocking the chunks of mortar here and there, whilst breaking nary a brick — it’s a skill, that’s for sure. Monotonous to an extreme, by the way.
    I just remembered why they were renting some space from me — we had the job of hauling the cleaned bricks away from the jobsite, at first; the men were cleaning those bricks in the basement of the building as it was being torn down!!! This was an old brick hotel in Chinatown San Francisco — a very controversial demolition. The working conditions for those men in that basement were just unimaginably bad. I rented them some space and they were out in the sunlight and fresh air and it was okay, but then there was the mess they made.
    Well, enough of a story, I just wanted to give some flavor for what, I believe, a brickbat actually is, out there in the real world.
    But, in the rarefied atmosphere of etymology and literature, if the writers and readers all agree that a brickbat is a piece of brick; and furthermore the true cognoscenti of brick and brickbat all agree that a TRUE brickbat is one with one end intact, in fact; well, so be it. Reality is just a crutch anyway, and maybe I should defer to those with more booklarnin’ and less anecdotage.

  • Richard Katz

    oh, but the use of bat in brickbat or brick bat by Uncle Jake is, I do believe, just as common — or should I say, just as arcane. Next time I go over to the brickyard on Peacock Gap Road (= East Second Street) in San Rafael, California I’m going to stop on in and check up on Uncle Jake, surely; but more critically I’m going to check up on myself, and see if a brickbat is a shard from a wall of a knocked down brick building.
    I’ll bet that there is at least one of Uncle Jake’s brick bats in some museum somewhere;
    I’d also bet that there is not a single brickbat of the type I’m describing — a busted up piece of a brick building — in any museum anywhere.

    (please combine my two comments — the first one was not sufficiently longwinded; etymologists should NOT be into the brevity thing, El Duderino)

  • Henry Ford is quoted as making “a furnace of clay and brick-bats” in about 1873. This would support the broken brick definition and not a reference to a missile or a brick mold.

  • Ginny Teegarden

    Growing up in southern Indiana, my family lived next door to the Popps. My older brother Larry threw apples at Mrs. Popp’s clothes on the line. She caught him doing it and yelled, “Do that again and I’ll throw a brickbat up the side of your head!”. Those were the days.

  • Kani Seifert

    I was recently told I use the “hard as a brickbat” often in reference to baked goods as well. It must come from the family’s southern Illinois roots. My one attempt at a lentil loaf certainly fit the bill. In fact, if anyone needs brickbats for building and can’t find them, I recommend lentil loaves.

  • Kakie Parker

    I’ve used the term “hard as a brickbat” for as long as I can remember. I don’t even know where and/or who I got it from, I don’t recall anyone else using the term, but I come from a huge, Southern family and could have picked it up anywhere in my childhood. It always meant, to me, and I don’t know how I came to believe this (I always loved listening to the older generations talk though)….a bat, or stick of wood, used in loosening bricks from their forms. Much like comment #5.

  • Maryann

    I was looking at a cookbook today written be Elizabeth David and in her long section about muffins, crumpets etc., and many old , old recipes that she writes about , there is a mention of putting a brickbat on the fire to lessen the heat . So, of course, I had to google “brickbat” and I’m wondering if it might be a broken brick not good for any other use?

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