Brickbat

To bean, perhaps to clobber.

Dear Word Detective: Twice recently I have come across the word “brickbats” and the term “throwing brickbats” in the context of a large disturbance. I have tried numerous sources, but have not been able to come up with anything describing what a “brickbat” is, and why one would want to throw it. Any ideas? — Jerry Bacon.

Good question. I remember being puzzled by “brickbat” when I was a kid. Of course, I suppose I could have simply asked my parents, since they were both etymologists and in the business of answering such questions, but somehow I never got around to it.

Come to think of it, just while I’ve been writing this column I’ve been remembering my mother using the word “brickbat” fairly frequently, but until just now I couldn’t recall the context. She was, after all, a thoroughly non-violent person. But I now realize that she used the word in the phrase “hard as a brickbat,” often referring to a biscuit or bread that had gone stale. Oddly enough, that “brickbat as a measure of the staleness of bakery products” sense seems to be missing from all the dictionary definitions of the word.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, a “brickbat” is a piece or fragment of a standard building brick, usually less than half the size of a full brick but, according to brickbat purists, retaining one unbroken end of the brick. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “brickbat” has always been an instrument of social disorder: “It is the typical ready missile, where stones are scarce.” “Brickbat” is also a very old word, first found (so far) in print in 1563, used in a typically violent context (“She sent a brickbat after him, and hit him on the back”).

Brickbats must have been a popular means of self-expression in the 16th and 17th centuries, because by 1642 the poet John Milton was using the word in a figurative sense to mean “an uncomplimentary remark; a harsh criticism” (“I beseech ye friends, ere the brick-bats flye, resolve me and yourselves…”). Flinging bits of brick at your neighbor is pretty seriously illegal these days, of course, so this metaphorical meaning of “harshly critical comment” is now far more common than the literal sense.

But why a “bat”? “Bat” first appeared in Old English in the form “batte” meaning “cudgel or war club,” and developed a range of similar “club” senses as it evolved, eventually including that of our familiar baseball or cricket “bat.” But in Middle English the word also came to mean “lump or chunk of something,” and this is the sense that developed into the “bat” of “brickbat.” Interestingly, that “lump” sense of “bat” also came to mean the lumps of cotton wadding (used in, for example, quilts) that we know today as “batting.”

By the way, all these senses of “bat” are completely unrelated to the “flying critter” kind of “bat,” which traces its name to a Scandinavian root meaning “animal that flaps.”

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