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Brouhaha

Q From William Wimmer (Rick Peeples and Robert Fineberg asked related questions): Can you tell me anything about the derivation of the word bruhaha? I’m not sure this is the standard spelling, that is, if there is a standard spelling.

A The usual spelling is brouhaha, meaning an overexcited and noisy response, a commotion, hubbub or uproar. It’s a negative word for some unpleasant confusion; a more neutral alternative might be the equally odd-looking hubbub. We know the word came from the French word spelled the same way; it’s found in French from the sixteenth century on, but it only arrived in English at the end of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been used in French drama as a noise made by the devil, who cried brou, ha, ha!.

Many etymologists will say that the word was just a noisy nonsense exclamation that imitated the thing it referred to. But there is a theory, put forward by Walther von Wartburg, that it actually comes from the Hebrew barukh habba, meaning “welcome” — literally “blessed be the one who comes” — a phrase that appears several times in the Book of Psalms and which is used in Synagogue prayers and as a greeting at Jewish weddings and other public occasions.

You might think that this is just another case of folk wisdom guessing on the basis of slight resemblance, but there is evidence to suggest it may be correct. There’s a similar word in the Arezzo dialect of Italian, barruccaba, that is without doubt borrowed from the Hebrew, and phrases in several other languages suggest that other Hebrew expressions were similarly borrowed. One such, sometimes found in US English, is tohubohu, a related word meaning total confusion or a state of chaos. This is taken from the Hebrew phrase in Genesis that is translated in the King James bible as “without form and void”, though the original is nearer to “emptiness and desolation”.

However, it’s dangerous to say that because some words come from Hebrew, others must do so too. Some linguists think a Hebrew derivation for brouhaha is just plain wrong. A World Wide Words subscriber, John Peter Maher, wrote to say that he has done some work on the origins of brou in French. He suggests a more likely origin may be bull baiting and that the word may be linked to the Italian or Spanish bravo. He points to the French rabrouer, to taunt, as a linked term.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 29 Apr. 2000
Last updated 13 May 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-bro1.htm
Last modified: 13 May 2000.