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.
Ah 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.
Dear Word Detective: Newsweek and the NY Times have both recently used the word “ur-text” in articles with no indication of its meaning. Example: “Principals had ordered Payne’s books and DVD’s by the boxload, mostly her ur-text, ‘A Framework for Understanding Poverty,’ . . .” What does it mean? — Kate Simpson.
Well, what do we mean when we say, “What does it mean?” Do we mean “What is the literal meaning of the word?” Or do we mean the meta-meaning, the cultural significance, of “ur”? And what, after all, is “meaning”? “Meaning” is subjective, of course, but “meaning” is “meaningless,” so to speak, without collective agreement on its objective value, which is almost always less than five bucks.
OK, onward. What “ur” means, in a cultural sense, is that you have stumbled over a line of cultural demarcation, the one separating folks who nod knowingly at buzzwords like “heuristic” and “semiotic” and “trope” and “ur,” and the rest of us schlubs who have to look this stuff up. “Ur” is, at least when it’s used in the mass media, the sound of a writer showing off, and I, for one, find it intensely annoying. Academics, of course, are free to torture each other with this stuff (knock yourselves out, please), but the rest of us just wanna read the paper before the parakeet needs it.
What “ur” means in a literal sense, used as a prefix (ur-text, ur-cow, ur-toaster, etc.), is “original or earliest,” with the sense that the ur-thingy presages or underlies what comes later. “Ur” is a German prefix found in several German terms imported into English and used primarily in scholarly and scientific contexts, e.g., “Ursprache” (“sprache” meaning “speech”) or proto-language, and “Urheimat” (“homeland”), the place of origin of a people or language. One of the earliest uses of “ur” in English was in the early 20th century in “ur-Hamlet,” the long-lost 16th century play on which Shakespeare supposedly based his version. The use of “urtext” in English dates to the 1930s (“In these volumes … we have the nearest thing possible in Chopin’s case to an Urtext,” Times (London) Literary Supplement, 1932), and subsequent use has usually carried the implication that the “urtext” is either a “purer” form than later versions or is the clearest statement of the author’s thesis or vision before the derivative sequels and DVD deals cluttered things up. Kinda like when James Bond was still Sean Connery.
Speaking of early things, by the way, there is (or was) another “Ur,” an ancient city in Mesopotamia thought by some to be the birthplace of Abraham. The remains of Ur, an important archaeological site, can be found today near Nasiriyah, south of Baghdad, Iraq.
Cleans up good.
Dear Word Detective: I recently purchased some DVD’s of the old “Little Rascals” TV shows for my three year old. One of the shows was entitled “Sprucin’ Up,” and I realized, while explaining what that meant to my son, that I had no idea where that might have come from. Webster’s was not very helpful, saying the word spruce is perhaps related to a middle English alteration of the Anglo-French “Pruce” for “Prussian.” Did they consider Prussians very neat and tidy, thus getting the sense of the phrase today? — Chris Lenz.
Gee, I always figured “spruce up” referred to the piney odor of popular household cleansers. Speaking of things piney, today I saw a commercial in which the people who make Pine-Sol (the main ingredient of which is, hold the phone, pine oil) announced that they are holding a contest to pick their “new fragrance.” Say what? Isn’t that akin to picking a “new fragrance” for lemonade? Isn’t the whole point of Pine-Sol that you can smell pine oil a block away?
By the way, although you and I saw the “Little Rascals” series on TV, it was originally produced by Hal Roach as an immensely popular series of “shorts” (under the name “Our Gang”) and released to movie theaters between 1922 and 1944.
Meanwhile, back at your question, whichever dictionary you consulted was being a bit too cautious with that “perhaps.” The verb “to spruce” meaning “to make neat and clean” and the related adjective “spruce” meaning “neat and dapper in appearance” are both definitely related to Prussia, once a kingdom of northern Europe and now a region of modern Germany. The original English name for Prussia was “Pruce,” borrowed from the Old French, but at some point in the 14th century that was altered by English-speakers, for some unknown reason, to “Spruce.” The “spruce” evergreen tree was originally called a “spruce fir” and thought to have originated in “Spruce,” i.e., Prussia.
The connection between neatness and “spruce” is a little more roundabout than simply a tribute to the legendary Prussian penchant for fastidious organization. During this same period England was importing a wide variety of goods from Prussia, many of which were popularly known by their country of origin, e.g., “Spruce canvas,” “Spruce beer,” “Spruce iron,” etc. Apparently “Spruce leather” was an especially high-grade product, and it came to be used in a particular style of leather jerkin (a short, sleeveless jacket) that became very popular and was known as a “Spruce jerkin.” This led to “spruce” breaking free of its tie to Prussia in popular speech and becoming, instead, a synonym for “neat, trim, fashionable” in the 16th century. By the late 17th century, “spruce” as a verb had been joined with “up,” and we’ve been “sprucing up” our households and ourselves ever since.