Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Brand-New" or "Bran-New"?

Dorothy G. of Teeswater, Ontario writes in with today's Mailbag Friday question:

I have always used bran-new to imply "unused," "just out of the package," etc. But when I look it up, I also find brand-new. Entirely too many years ago, if I used brand-new, I was assured that it was merely a mispronouncing of bran-new. I'd appreciate knowing the difference.

It appears that the advice that Dorothy got lo those many years ago was entirely backwards. Brand-new is the historically earlier form, and bran-new arose as a kind of reinterpretation. But that reinterpretation has proved remarkably sturdy over the years, to the extent that some speakers of English (as in Dorothy's neck of the woods) take it to be the primary form, with brand-new as a mispronunciation/misspelling that ought to be "corrected."

If you had to guess, you might think that brand-new has something to do with newly branded cattle. That's not the origin, but it's not too far off the mark either. The brand of cattle-branding comes from the old sense of the word meaning a piece of freshly burning wood. (Cattle get branded with a hot iron, but the fiery idea is the same.) So brand-new was understood to suggest a burning piece of wood fresh out of the fire. The earliest known attestation for bran(d)-new comes from 1570 (in a sermon by John Foxe: "New bodies, new minds ... and all thinges new, brande-newe"). Shakespeare had roughly the same idea in 1594, when he wrote in Richard III, "Your fire-new stamp of honor is scarce current."

The spelling bran-new starts showing up about a century later: in his 1664 spoof of the Aeneid entitled Scarronides, Charles Cotton writes of a "bran-new Flaxen-Smock." Usage increased throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it didn't take long for observers to note the rising popularity of the variant, both in pronunciation and spelling. George William Limon, in his English Etymology of 1783, wrote of "brand-new, or as it is commonly pronounced bran-new." And in 1828, Noah Webster included both brand-new and bran-new in his American Dictionary, but commented that it is "properly" brand-new. Writers as illustrious as Dickens and Twain have used bran-new, but often to represent dialectal speech.

The emergence of bran-new on both sides of the Atlantic isn't too surprising. The consonant cluster that arises from bringing brand together with new, /ndn/, is prone to "simplification," as phoneticians say. Even in careful speech, the /d/ sound is likely to be reduced if not elided entirely. It's the same thing that happened historically to the d (pronounced as /t/) in such compounds as iced cream, popped corn, or minced meat, which became ice cream, popcorn, and mincemeat. (We'll make an exception for Mr. Burns on "The Simpsons," who archaically enjoys "this so-called iced cream.")

Of course, in these cases, if you leave out the -d ending from the first part of the compound you're still left with a word that's similar to the original: iced vs. ice, minced vs. mince, etc. Brand and bran, on the other hand, don't appear related to each other (unless you choose to spell bran as bran', with an apostrophe remaining in place of the missing d). So as often happens in the case of "pronunciation spellings," folk etymologies arise to explain the new form. Bran refers to the husks of cereal grains, so as early as 1875 one amateur etymologist suggested that bran-new connotes "bran newly sifted or separated from the flour." Meanwhile, on Wiktionary, the user-generated dictionary from the makers of Wikipedia, a contributor offers this explanation:

The term 'brand new' or 'bran new' was when new items were packaged up with unwanted bran grain in the 18th Century to protect the object during transit. When the item was unpacked, the owner would often find traces of bran in the item. Hence the term.

Needless to say, there's not a scintilla of evidence for the bran story. Pack it up with other etymological myths like posh supposedly standing for "port outward, starboard home" (referring to swank cabin locations on ships traveling between Britain and India).

The popularization of bran-new might have been indirectly helped along by another dialectal form that happens to rhyme: span-new, which goes back to the thirteenth century (span being an Old Norse word for a chip of wood). Bran(d)-new and span-new eventually got combined in some dialects to form the rhyming bran(d)-span-new. And once spanking entered the picture as an adjective meaning "strikingly fine or large" or an adverb meaning "exceptionally," that allowed for the creation of brand spanking new as a compound that's even more emphatic than brand-new.

Paul Brians in his excellent Common Errors in English Usage notes one case where bran-new actually makes sense. In L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz (the book, not the movie), the scarecrow is given a new brain that is literally made of bran. The scarecrow is satisfied that he now has a bran-new brain. For everyone of a non-scarecrow persuasion, however, brand-new should do the trick.

Do you have your own question about the history of a word or phrase that you'd like to have discussed in a future Mailbag Friday? Click here and let us know!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 5th 2008, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
Iced tea!
Friday December 5th 2008, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Before reading this article, I would have said that 'bran-new' in written English was just plain wrong, clearly a misapprehension of the proper 'brand-new,' and obviously without attestation in writing (though not in pronunciation). It points up how incomplete my own apprehension of English is, in spite of the fact that I consider myself more knowledgeable than most. And it underscores again why I enjoy this column, and VT in general, so much. Thank you, Ben (and Dorothy)!
Friday December 5th 2008, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Seeing that the two words in 'brand-new' are hyphenated, while the couple in 'ice cream' maintain a discreet distance, got me wondering why. So I looked up 'ice' in my Chambers.

'ice-blue' and 'ice-free' were the only hyphenated ice combo words, with the exception of ice-foot, ice-belt, and ice-ledge which are all terms to define ice formed round the coast in Arctic regions. They spoil my budding theory that a hyphen is used in noun-adjective combinations. One would probably hyphenate, for instance, 'a spring-fresh morning'.

However, I noticed a couple more interesting anomalies. While 'ice cream' kept the two words apart, 'ice-cream soda' suddenly required those two words to be joined! Equally intriguing: while you take your ice skates to the ice rink, what you do there is ice-skate!

The Arctic coastal ice-belts ruined my attempt to forge a rule, but I wonder if there ARE any rules governing hyphenation?

Would you hyphenate 'dining room'? According to the introduction to my Chambers, you wouldn't if you were American, but a Brit would write 'dining-room'. Similarly, Brits write bitter-root while Americans prefer the rather cumbrous 'bitterroot' (making it a word with three double letters in it - I wonder how rare that is?!)

These are not isolated examples of this difference in hyphenation policies across the Pond, according to Chambers. It claims that the hyphen is generally used less often in American English than in British English. Did you know that? It's news to me.

That makes me even more curious about why, when and how the hyphen appeared in the formation of our language. I can't remember any hyphens in Latin (but I last read Latin texts 50 years ago!)

Maybe this would be a good subject for one of your Friday Mailbags?
Friday December 5th 2008, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Geoff: Hyphenation is indeed a tricky area, often without hard-and-fast (hard and fast?) rules. I talked about recent trends in hyphenation on OUPblog last year, and I'll try to return to the topic in a future Word Routes column.
Friday December 5th 2008, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Might wanna take a peek back at Language Lounge December 2007 as well . . .
Sunday December 7th 2008, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Dorothy G. (Canada)
As an addendum to Geoff A. "Bookkeeper" - The one of which I am.
Monday December 8th 2008, 10:13 PM
Comment by: ann R. (Palatine, IL)
My opinion is that ice-cream soda requires a hyphen because ice-cream is a compound modifier for soda in the example provided. However, if you to go to the store, one would purchase a gallon of ice cream and this would not require a hyphen, i.e., there is no compound modifier.
Tuesday December 30th 2008, 1:57 PM
Comment by: Marston G. (Tacoma, WA)
Bran New sounds like lazy language usage to me. Much like I'm going to 'axe' you a question.

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