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‘Brouhaha’ Provokes a You-Know-What

It does sound vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

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The word “brouhaha” has appeared in Tablet Magazine well over a dozen times. In one instance, I fashioned a cognate from it: a brouhaha that is brewing, I suggested, is in fact something that is brouhaha-ing. It’s a handy, flexible word: it concisely describes any number of the types of conflicts that are journalism’s bread and butter; it has the added advantage of being not a little onomatopoetic. So I thought nothing of deploying it freely and frequently.

I’m … sorry?

I received a lovely email recently from one Bonny Fetterman. “I wonder if you are aware of the etymology of the word ‘brouhaha’ because if you were, you probably wouldn’t have used it in this title,” she wrote (I had typed it in reference to, of all things, the ADL). She continued, citing her high school teacher: “It was an anti-Semitic term in France, based on the words of Hebrew prayer, ‘Baruch atah … ’ which sounded like a confused mess to Frenchmen passing synagogues and came to signify a loud, confused mess.” Wait, really?

A quick check of an online etymological resource revealed: “1890, from Fr. brouhaha (1550s), said by Gamillscheg to have been, in medieval theater, ‘the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.’ Perhaps from Heb. barukh habba‘ ‘blessed be the one who comes,’ used on public occasions (cf. Psalm 118).” Ms. Fetterman pointed me to Merriam-Webster, which reports, “etymologists have connected the French derivation to that frequently recited Hebrew phrase, distorted to something like ‘brouhaha’ by worshippers whose knowledge of Hebrew was limited. Thus, once out of the synagogue, the word first meant ‘a noisy confusion of sound’—a sense that was later extended to refer to any tumultuous and confused situation.”

On the one hand, there is something elegant about the fact that the word once connoted “the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.” On the other hand, according to Ms. Fetterman, “I bristle every time I hear the term,” and so out of respect to her and other linguists among our readers, we will try to refrain from using it. Sincerest apologies for this kerfuffle.

Earlier: Is Israel an Appropriate Political Issue?

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I feel gypped.


That was fascinating, and I had no idea.

Outstanding story. So let’s reclaim it, the way the LGBT movement has reclaimed “queer.” Then the ‘ha-ha’ will be on the antisemites

Beatrix says:

I’m just glad I had a dictionary handy when I read this article.

Thank you for this enlightening if depressing lesson in etymology. How sad to see brouhaha go the way of other choice words … But as a French native speaker, I have to say I find the word kerfuffle so much more fun to use!

I think you need to do a little more research; I’m not at all convinced by etymonline, especially since it only goes back to 1890! In “The Royal Dictionary” of 1728 ( it’s defined as “Clapping, Applause” – which most people would consider a Good Thing and not, you know, anti-Semitic…

Here’s Molière: “Voilà ce qui attire l’approbation, & fait faire le brouhaha.” The word seemed to have positive connotations for _him_, anyway.

Wait, did you just have to issue a public apology over a super obscure term dating back almost 500 years that may or may not have actually been offensive?
I hate telling people to get a thicker skin, but…

“Hocus Pocus” is thought to be a corruption of “Hoc est enim corpus meum”, part of the Catholic liturgy of the eucharist.

Since eucharist wafers have, historically, been thought to have magical qualities and been used in magic (protective amulets, etc), I think this etymology might well be true.

If I may, brouhaha, schmouhaha. I hate to hear when anyone is hurt, but the vast majority of users of this word in English and French have never even heard of its supposedly anti-Semitic roots. If someone decides to be offended by “niggardly” — as has happened more than once despite the word’s Old Norse origins — that does not mean the word is offensive in itself. It means a small number of people have, through a mysterious process, come to be offended by it.

For what it’s worth, this is the etymology in the French Academy’s dictionary:

(1)BROUHAHA n. m. XVIe siècle, Brou, brou, brou, ha, ha ! Probablement altération de la formule hébraïque barukh habba, « béni soit celui qui vient (au nom du Seigneur) ».
Bruit confus qui s’élève dans une assemblée nombreuse en signe d’approbation ou de désaccord. Un brouhaha admiratif, désapprobateur. Par ext. Le brouhaha de la rue, des gares, du stade, de la fête foraine. Il est impossible de s’entendre dans un tel brouhaha !

“Probably an alteration of the Hebrew formula ‘baruch habba’, ‘blessed is he who comes [in the name of the Lord.]’ A confused noise that arises in a numerous assembly as a sign of approbation or disagreement. An admiring brouhaha, disapproving. By extension, the brouhaha of the street, the stations, the stadiums, the fair. It is impossible to hear in such a brouhaha!”

“Approbation”? “Admiring”? With no mention of use in slandering Jews at all, this seems to be merely a synonym for “clamour” and this is a — well, your chosen “kerfuffle” is a good one — over nothing. I would rather the tiny minority offended by “brouhaha” do a bit of research than that the great majority forswear an innocent word.


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‘Brouhaha’ Provokes a You-Know-What

It does sound vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

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