John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Monday, April 12, 2010

Once more unto the breach

I regret having to point out to you this sentence from an article in The New York Times about the recent Republican gathering in Louisiana:

At a cocktail reception on the banks of the Mississippi River, people in yellow Tea Party shirts barely mingled with Republican stalwarts, many of whom wore neckties or broaches decorated with elephants, the proud symbol of the party.

Broach, of course, is not a noun but a verb meaning “to break open.” Its earliest sense in English was to pierce something with a sharp object, but, the English always having been great drinkers, was more commonly used to mean opening a cask or barrel to draw out the liquor. It also means to open up in a figurative sense; to broach a painful subject is to introduce it for discussion.

The word the writer was groping for is the homophone brooch, an ornament pinned to clothing. It is an etymological variant of broach, which as a noun meant “skewer” or “bodkin” in Middle English, thus suggesting the pin that fastens the ornament.

Broach the verb is sometimes confused with breach, which means to break through a barrier – as when the Turks breached the mighty walls of Constantinople in 1453 and brought down what little remained of the Byzantine Empire. Figuratively, it means to break an agreement. As a noun, breach is the gap that has been broken in a wall or the violation of the agreement, as in “breach of contract.”  

Breach in turn is confused with breech, which used to mean the buttocks. That is what breeches or britches are meant to cover. It survives in modern English as the name for the back part of a rifle or gun barrel.


  1. Broach is used to describe the undesired rising of a submarine to the surface so rapidly that the boat actually rises out of the water to some extent beyond the norm - as in an emergency need to surface. Should the Navy have chosen to use 'breach' instead or is there is a close association to 'broach'?

  2. breech...survives more commonly as breech birth, breech delivery, or breech position.

  3. I don't know anything about submarines, but when whales pop up out of the water it's called 'breaching.' Maybe the first navy person to coin a word for submarines doing the same thing chose not quite the right word...

  4. And don't forget the eggcorn "breach the gap," which really should be "bridge the gap."

  5. navy is as navy does

  6. A very helpful clarification. Thank you.

  7. Patricia the TerseApril 13, 2010 at 1:54 AM

    I decline to broach this topic.

  8. "Broach, of course, is not a noun but a verb meaning “to break open.” Its ..."

    Our nautical neophytes may not know that a vessel, turning side-on to heavy seas by action of the wind, "broaches."

    This can be followed by a "knockdown," "dismasting," a "capsize," or "sinking."

    "Floundering" is not a nautical term except tothe extent that it describes a kind of fisherman.