Katzenjammer Kids on Parade.

Dear Word Detective: I found your web page discussing the possible origin of the word “brat.” My wife is German and we were watching some out of control children at a wedding yesterday and she said that in Germany they were called “Satansbraten,” or “Devil’s Roast.” I was just curious if that could also be a possible origin. — Leighton Shell.

That’s an interesting theory. I don’t speak German, so I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here. But my impression is that the logic of “Satansbraten,” widely translated as “problem child” or “brat,” is that the noxious little nipper is either more than likely to end up roasting on a spit in Hell or is, in fact, a devil or demon incarnate. Seems a little harsh to me, but then again I’ve also been to a few weddings terrorized by out of control children, so maybe not.

As I said in the column I wrote back in 2004, “brat” is a pejorative colloquial English term for “a child, especially an ill-tempered, spoiled or badly behaved child.” In his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined the word (which first appears in the written record in 1557) as “a child, so called in contempt.” But in the 16th and 17th centuries, “brat” was also used without contempt or condemnation to mean any small, usually “insignificant” child (as in the term “beggar’s brat,” a child deployed to evoke sympathy from passers-by).

It seems plausible that “brat” could have arisen in English as a borrowed and clipped form of the German “Satansbraten,” but I see a couple of problems on the English side of the border. First, the earliest written examples of “brat” found so far use the term to simply mean “child” or “offspring” with no pejorative overtones (“What [sin] hath Aeneas, my brat, committed agaynst [thee]?”, 1582). But “Satansbraten” has, I assume, always been used pejoratively, as positive invocations of Satan are somewhat rare.

Second, no one, to my knowledge, has found the sort of intermediate stages of development to be expected when a foreign word is taken into English and modified, such as the original word being used in English text and explained (e.g., “as the Germans say…”). So I tend to doubt that “Satansbraten” is the source of “brat.” It is possible, of course, that the development of “brat” was influenced in some way by “Satansbraten,” but that would be nearly impossible to document.

Unfortunately, a definitive explanation of where, exactly, “brat” did come from is not possible. One intriguing theory traces it to another kind of “brat” in English, this one meaning “a cloak made of coarse cloth, especially as worn by a child” (from the Old Irish “bratt,” cloth, cloak). This “brat,” meaning a sort of smock or apron worn by children, was, according to this theory, eventually adopted as a term for the children themselves.

Interestingly, this “brat/cloth” theory closely parallels a theory suggested to explain the development of our English word “girl,” which I mentioned in a recent column and which originally meant a child of either sex. The Old English word “gyrela,” meaning “garment,” is the suggested source for “girl,” and once again the theory is that the name for an article of clothing gradually became the word for the wearer. The parallels between the theories are striking, but since neither theory has been proven, one cannot be invoked to argue for the other, and so we are left with two mysteries on our hands.

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