Etymology Corner- Pretzel

Et-ymology… Cor-ner! Ep-isode! Three of Wonder-ful!

I was very excited to hear Rachel mention pretzels. My first linguistics professor was from Germany and she loved to happen about how we mispronounced “brezel”. Obviously pretzels came to the English world through German immigrants, but the root isn’t Germanic, but Latin.

The Medieval Latin “*brachitella” was a similar biscuit made to look like crossed arms. It was named from the word for the forearm, “bracchium”, which in turn comes from Greek.

Oh hey, that’s the root “brachio-“! Since the forearm is the shorter arm part, it also meant “short”, so it gave Latin “brevius” which of course is the root of words like brevity, abbreviation and abridge. Go further back and you get Proto-Indo-European “*mregh-u”. At this point you’re probably noticing some of these old words are asterisked. In linguistics that means a word is reconstructed from words we know evolved from it. Anyway, those Proto-Indo-Europeans were bummers cuz they used *mregh-u to describe short bursts of happiness, which is where we get the words merry and mirth.

Back in brach(io), the most obvious ancestor we have is the brachiosaurus, named so because it’s forelegs are actually much bigger than the hindlegs. That arm root also gave us words for things that go on arms, like bracers and bracelets, or things you do with your arms, like embrace. Bracers and similar armors even inspired the name of the chest piece worn by so many today, the brassiere. All of that from one little root!


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