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WORDSWORDSWORDS#11 ("Brand" new)

I was listening to a commercial the other night and heard the phrase "brand new" used to describe the appearance of an object after the employment of some miracle cleaner. "Brand new?" I thought. What does the word "brand" mean in the phrase "brand new"? I speculated that the intensifier "brand" might have something to do with looking new because a brand has been added or applied (like sewing on the Levi's patch before selling a new pair of jeans). I was wrong.

When I researched, I realized that I probably should have figured out the usage on my own since the phrase "brand" to describe the "newness" of something has been around since the 16th Century. In fact, William Shakespeare used the locution a few times in his plays. In actuality, the word "brand" meant "fire" or "torch" back then.

The good people at the Word Detective site explain the usage in the following way:

“Brand new,” of course, means “completely new, unused,” and has been in constant use since at least the late 16th century. The “brand” in “brand-new” (the hyphenated original form) is “brand” in its Old English sense of “burning piece of wood” or, more generally, “fire.” Something that is “brand new” is as new as if it had just emerged from the fire of a forge (e.g., a sword) or kiln (pottery, etc.). Shakespeare expressed the same concept in his use of the similar phrase “fire-new.” The use of “brand” to mean “proprietary name for one’s product” in the “Coke” sense is a later use of “brand,” most likely taken from the vintners’ practice of marking wooden wine casks with an iron “brand” heated in a fire.

Here are a couple of examples using "fire new":

Your fire-new stamp of honour is scarce current.— William Shakespeare, Richard III, 1592

… some excellent jests, fire-new from the mint….— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 1601

The similar phrase "bran new" was also quite popular, and I remember seeing it used in some classic novels from the 19th Century. Both Dickens and Twain employed this phrase. It seems possible, if not likely, that people began spelling "brand new" as "bran new" just because it was common to swallow the "d" when the phrase was spoken quickly. Thus, people assumed "bran new" was what was actually being said, so they spelled it that way. We see this kind of alteration frequently. Many people, for example, say they desire a glass of "Ice Tea" instead of the original "Iced Tea".

We got an old tin lantern, and a butcher-knife without any handle, and a bran-new Barlow knife worth two bits in any store….

— Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, 1884

There are some who believe that "bran new" is derived from the practice of packing ceramics or glassware or other fragile objects in bran or other grains in order to keep them from breaking during overseas shipment from China. This seems less likely to me. Those people believe that "bran new" was misheard as "brand new" (the reverse of what I previously mentioned) and that is how "brand new" came into fashion.

Sometimes I have used a double-adverbial in "This is "brand, spanking new"! (Pretty intense, right?)

Where does the term "spanking" fit in this construction? The phrase "spanking" to describe something's "freshness" actually arrived in the mid-17th Century, well before the verb "to spank" (although it originally meant something more akin to "remarkable" than "new").

So, if you hear someone describe his or her new VW Microbus as "brand, spanking new", you know it has just been driven off the lot!


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