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.
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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. 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 other articles by Ben Zimmer