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.