Mortress of Brawn

Next best thing to a bacon milkshake.

Dear Word Detective: Speaking, as you recently were, of authors’ using arcane words, I have stumbled upon a puzzler in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, The White Company. The tale is set in 14th century England and France, and is rife with what I suppose are 14th century terms and tricks of speech. Most can be worked out with relative ease, but I have been stumped by the phrase “a mortress of brawn.” The reference is clearly to the main component of a hearty dinner, and a dictionary hunt suggests that “brawn” is probably (but not unequivocally) pork. The “mortress” part, however, eludes me, although it evidently refers to either the quantity or the cut of the meat. Even the (Compact) Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not appear to shed light on it. Can you? — Mike Lucey, Troy, NY.

I’ll give it a shot. I guess if the Compact OED contained words as obscure as “mortress,” it wouldn’t be very compact. What we need is the full-bore 20-volume OED, and here I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There’s a good chance that your local public library subscribes to the electronic edition of the OED. My local library here in Ohio even allows access to it from home via the internet.

mortress08.pngYour hunch about “brawn” is correct. Derived from the Old French “braon” (fleshy part, muscle, hind leg), “brawn” first appeared in English in the 14th century with the general sense of “part of the animal suitable for roasting.” In England in particular, “brawn” almost always referred to pork. The sense of “brawn” meaning “muscle” gave us “brawny” in the 16th century meaning “muscular, strong” in both literal and figurative senses (“Liberty is … the brawn of national strength,” 1883).

While “brawn” remains in common usage, “mortress” is considered archaic and obscure today. A “mortress” was a thick soup made with meat or fish (so a “mortress of brawn” would most likely be a pork soup). “Mortress” (and its cousin “mortrel”) entered English in the 14th century from the Middle French “morterel,” which was then a mixture of bread and milk. The root of all these words was the Latin “mortarium,” mixing bowl or mortar (as in the mortar and pestle once used by pharmacists to crush and mix drugs), reflecting the sense of food that had been crushed in a mortar (or, in the case of meat, finely minced).

Incidentally, the name of the kind of cement called “mortar” used between bricks, as well as that of the artillery piece called a “mortar,” both come from the same “mortarium.” The cement sort refers to the mixing of its ingredients in a “mortar,” while the “boom” sort harks back to the resemblance of early artillery mortars to the pharmacist’s mixing bowl.

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