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Merry and bra – an interesting connection

I think most people don’t like change. It is uncomfortable and it makes people yearn for older times. But change is all around us and this can be seen especially in language. Some words change very little over time. For example, “ship” was “scip” in Old English. It is virtually unchanged in 1200 years.

Some words though, change a lot over time. The word “merry” is a perfect example. In current usage it means “happy” or “cheerful”. But it is ultimately derived from a word in Proto Indo European (the grandfather of English) *mréǵʰus which meant “short”. This came into Proto Germanic (the father of English) as *murguz meaning “short” or “slow” and became “myrige” in Old English where the “g” is pronounced like Modern English consonant “y”.

Things that are long and drawn out can be quite boring, conversely, things that pack a lot of punch and are succinct can be very pleasing. A similar meaning development happen in German with “kurzweilig” meaning “fun” or “entertaining”. The word is adjective form of “a short while” and “boring” in German is “langweilig” which is an adjective form of “a long while”. So it seems that in Germanic languages, we have words for “fun” and “entertaining” coming from words or phrases which mean “short”.

In Latin, *mréǵʰus became “brevis” which means “short”, “narrow” or “shallow” and in Ancient Greek, *mréǵʰus became “βραχύς” ‎(brakhús) which also means “short”. “βραχύς” went on to refer to mean “upper arm” because the upper arm was shorter than the forearm. Latin then borrowed the form “βραχίων” ‎(brakhíōn) as “bracchium” to mean an arm, or simply a limb.

This went into Old French as “braciere” which was originally a lining inside armour to protect the arm, but evolved further to mean a garment. In Modern French, it became “brassière” which means a child’s vest or a life jacket. It was later borrowed into English as “brassiere” and later became “bra”. So “bra” and “merry” are actually connected, although they have completely different meanings.

These slow shifts in meaning are happening all the time and in every language. Languages are always changing, always shifting. Whatever a language is doing today, it will be doing something different the day after. It will keep changing and I find that really cool. Languages truly are living beings and will continue to change and adapt to the world around

For more interesting stories, check out our magazine Silly Linguistics

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