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shameless pleading

Work-brickle

For peanuts.

Dear Word Detective: My paternal grandfather and father both used the term “work-brickle,” usually to describe what a lazy person wasn’t, as in “Don’t count on it being done today — that feller ain’t exactly workbrickle.” Somehow that term popped back into my head the other day, and I asked Unca Google where it came from. Unc had no real idea. So I’m turning to you. Do you know where the term “work-brickle” or “workbrickle” comes from? — Gregory Bloom.

workbrickle08.pngAh yes, good old Unca Google, bottomless well of … something. We’re not sure what. Sometimes searching Google produces quick and accurate answers, but much of the time it’s like peering into a huge room where everyone is shouting nonsense and bouncing off the walls.

As you probably gathered from the few mentions of “workbrickle” you found in your Googling, the word seems to be a major mystery. Everyone agrees on its meaning, “willing and eager to work; industrious,” but no one seems to know where it came from. One source suggests that “to brickle” a horse is antiquated slang for “breaking” it, i.e., taming it enough to be ridden. Thus “workbrickle,” goes the theory, would mean “resigned to or recognizing the necessity of work.” It’s a nice theory, and it may even be true, but I think the origin of “workbrickle” lies elsewhere.

While the Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of “workbrickle” or “brickle” as a verb, it does have an entry for “work-brittle” with the same meaning of “eager to work, industrious,” dating back to 1647. This is obviously the same word, “brickle” being the Scots and English dialect form of “brittle” and a form common in the Midwestern US and Appalachia. But as far as the origin of “work-brittle” goes, the OED throws up its hands, noting that the “brittle” part appears to be the same word as “brittle” meaning “easily broken,” but “the sense-development remains obscure” (i.e., “beats us”). No dictionary of slang or dialectical terms I own offers any further information.

At this point in my research I sat for a while staring at my computer screen, and then suddenly realized where I had encountered the “brittle-brickle” pair before. “Peanut brittle,” easily breakable (thus “brittle”) hard toffee containing peanuts, is also known, in the US, as “peanut brickle.” There are other sorts of “brickle,” containing cashews, chocolate bits, etc, but in each the featured element is embedded in a sheet of not-terribly-exciting hard toffee “brittle.” The essence of a “brittle” is that added ingredient.

Now, it seems to me that if one were to take “brickle” as a metaphor for “full of” or “characterized by large amounts of,” then someone said to be “workbrickle” (perhaps originally “a workbrickle”) would be full of eagerness and dedication to the job, much as we speak of a “workaholic” today but without the negative overtones. Granted, it’s just a theory, but I find it very tasty.

27 comments to Work-brickle

  • My mother and her family used “work-brickle” a lot. Their family was from Indiana and of Irish and English descent.

  • Edward

    Interestingly, the only person I’ve ever heard use the term “work-brittle” was my mother, and she was born and raised in Indiana, but her ancestors were from Kentucky and were German, not English.

  • vicki willis

    My family used the words work-brickle or work brittle, usually in the words of someone not being very work-brittle or being lazy. Never really knew what it meant, my family was from Indiana and Kentucky.

  • April

    My grandmother used the term “work brickle” to describe the sudden onset of a zest for housecleaning, especially that experienced by some women at certain times of the month or by pregnant women shortly before the baby is due.

  • FRED

    My parents were of German descent, southwest Ohio and I’ve heard this term also as someone that was Lazy.

  • belle

    My grandfather termed me as “work brickle” recently. It’s a great word. He heard the term from his mother, origin Scotland, then landed in NC, and made way to Powell, TN. but again he said she was the only one he ever heard say the term, and not sure where it came from.

  • Linda

    Appalachian usage is ambiguous. My family used work brickle (brittle) to mean lazy, perhaps “broken by work,” but regional dictionaries “work brickle/brittle” is used both ways: industrious or not so.

  • janet

    My mother was from Jasper, Alabama near Birmingham. I always remember her using this term out in the garden when we were hoeing. She used the term “work brittle” to describe someone who had learned to work and accomplish what needed to be done. If someone had reached this point, they were deemed to be “work brittle”. If someone was lazy or not “broken in to hard work”, they were not “work brittle”.

    She was born in 1921 and her ancestors came over from Ireland in 1730. I am sure she learned this term from them. They were prosperous, hard working farmers.

  • My Mother used the phrase “He/she is not very work brickle”, meaing not a very good worker…a little lazy. She was born in 1910 in Wyoming County, West Virginia from German and English descent.

  • Jean

    My grandmother used the term as a noun with a “-y” sound as in “workey brickle”. My memory of her use was to describe herself when she was eager and bustling around working – she was a “workey brickle.” I don’t know how she spelled the term though.

  • Jean

    I should add that Grandma was born in 1904 in a small town in Iowa.

  • Mary

    I just heard it from a 63 year old co-worker speaking about two of our younger co-workers; I guessed at what she meant. She was born and raised in southeastern Kansas – I just thought it was an old country term.

  • R Madding

    I just looked this up as my mom used to say this perhaps too much back in the ’50′s when we were kids. “You’re not very work-brittle today.” And it meant all you said above. Our family has a Welsh/Scot/Pennsylvania Dutch/English background and we grew up in SE Illinois near Vincennes, IN

    I haven’t heard it since and those I have recently asked have never heard the phrase.

  • Debby

    The term “work brittle” is usually used in rural West Texas as in a person is not work brittle meaning he is lazy.

    I think the term may have come from tradesmen working with metals. In working with fine metals, such as silver, the more and harder you work it, the more brittle it becomes until it finally breaks from overwork.

  • dale mead lawrence

    I remember encountering the word in the novel “Friendly Persuasion” by Jessamyn West about the Quakers. The father of the family said that the hired man was not “work brickle,” meaning that he was lazy.

  • Ben of the North

    “work-brittle” is a metallurgical and manufacturing term, for the hardening/embrittlement that happens when metals are formed under pressure. Hammering or pressing a piece (especially in stages) makes the metal harder, but in that perverse way of things, the brittleness also increases.

    This can also happen to a part that is designed to take impacts as part of it’s operation: loss of elasticity over time, until it fractures. Work-hardening is the process, or verb, work-brittle is the condition after the process.

    FWIW, I’m not an engineer, but I’ve heard these terms in use from manufacturing and aerospace engineers.

  • Mark

    Here in southern Indiana and Kentucky the term “work brickle” would be used to discribe a person who does not work very hard or does not apply himself to a task for long; lazy, in other words. As in, “He’s freindly but the boy is work brickle”. To my mind it sounds like it discribes a person who “breaks off” from work easily. The people above who have the opposite meaning applied to this term, perhaps, has misunderstood. To say someone is “not” work brickle would mean flexable to work and so the opposite of the way dale mead lawrence read it in “Friendly Persuasion”. In knife making my uncle taught be careful to not “brickle” the steal or it will break easily implying that a brickle knife does not work well and breaks easily.

  • Kat

    I’m 10 generation Appalachian of Scots-Irish descent. My paternal grandmother who spoke with what people now say is the Appalachian dialect. I only ever heard her use the term “work brickle” in a negative way as in “Someone was not very work brickle” meaning they were lazy. Her highest compliment was being a hard worker so consequently she was also quick to let you know if you weren’t very work brickle in her eyes.

  • Platt

    My grandmother was born in 1890 in northeastern Pennsylvania, of English, French and German descent, and married a man of English descent, Quaker background. She did not use the word to describe people, but rather would say Today is a work brittle day, meaning a day when the weather and sork conditions made one feel energetic and a lot was being accomplished.

  • Beverly

    I know this thread has been up quite a long time but I just found it today. Sitting at my desk on a dreary February day I told myself I was not feeling very “work brickle” today. It is the term my grandmother used for someone who wasn’t working very hard. In her conversations, someone was either “work brickle” or not “work brickle.” She was born in Johnson County, Indiana in 1892. Everyone in the region she lived her whole life understood the term and all of my life with her I understood the term but never knew its origin. Today, again not being very work brickle, I dedcided to “Google” it. The explanations given fit well with how my grandmother used the term. Thank you.

  • Garrol

    This phrase had not entered my mind for 50 years until today when out of the blue I said it in regards to a person who was obviously lazy. I remember my Irish/English family used it all the time when I was growing up. My ancestors came from Ireland in the 1800′s and settled in Virginia then moved to Missouri. It was a common phrase in my area of Missouri. I thought I was just wasting my time looking it up and was surprised to find others interested as I was.

  • Scott

    My parents used the phrase “not very work brickle” to mean the same as stated above, someone lazy or not work hardened. As someone previously stated, I don’t know how they would have spelled it, but it sounded like brickle. As I got older I started thinking about the term and wondered if they were meaning brittle when they said brickle. It’s true that brittle can mean that it is hard like ceramic and shatters easily, but I think they meant it in the context of working a metal like a blacksmith until it gets harder and tougher. If a person works on a regular basis, they will be work hardened, or toughened up. If they don’t, they will not be very work brickle. My parents were born in southern Indiana around 1915.

  • Stina

    My grandparents, Welsh and Irish I think, used “work brickle”. That was in west Tennessee.

    I still use the word because there’s nothing quite like it for describing someone who won’t throw themselves into the work. “Lazy” doesn’t capture the full sense.

  • Donna

    I’m 72 and have heard all my life the phrase used by my family in Indiana. We also have the Scotch-Irish heritage from Kentucky, Virginia, and South Carolina. It is so very fascinating how terms are handed down by the generations. My grandsons are 8th generation Hoosiers. I guess because hard working pioneers had to work hard, the phrase was most certainly a compliment. It is amazing how often Indiana is mentioned in the previous posts.

  • Bradley Buhro

    Just encountered the term “workbrickle” for the first time today, occasioning my visit here. It was used by a lifelong Central Indiana (Hancock County) resident in the sentence “He’s not exactly workbrickle.” When I asked what she meant by that, she meant he was a lazy sort, disinclined to labor. Having been raised in far Northeastern Indiana, I was unfamiliar with the term.

  • Charlene Rider

    I just found this thread today, after my 91 year old mom said it. I told her not to work too hard in the garden today and she said, “Don’t worry. I’m not very work brickle anymore”. I had never heard that term before. She was born and raised in Owen County, Indiana–German/English/Celtic Britain descent. What a cool word is work-brickle and thanks for all the interesting discussion.

  • Jackie

    I use the term frequently. For example just this morning when I was in a mood to really clean house! I wrote a brief email to a friend mentioning I was work brickle this morning. I learned it from my grandma who was born in the late 1800s. She was work brickle until the very end of her life. I hope I am too! It is a good feeling.

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