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.
Ah 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.