Q&A: Broach or brooch?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we wish to broach the subject of the decorative brooch…

Q: Hi AWC, how's your summer going?

A: Swimmingly.

Q: Speaking of which, I've been spending a lot of time down at the beach.

A: Going swimming?

Q: No, using the metal detector I got for Christmas. I wanted a golden retriever, but this should give me a similar result.

A: Okay. So have you found anything?

Q: On the first day I found a few hubcaps and number plates. But then I was told by disgruntled people to try the sand and not the car park.

A: Oh dear.

Q: Since then, I'd only found a few cans but today I found a broach.

A: Don't you mean a “brooch”?

Q: Ummm, I don't think so. It's pronounced “broach”…

A: That's a common mistake. In fact both words “brooch” and “broach” sound the same (rhyming with “coach”). But the pinned ornamental jewellery item is generally written as “brooch”.

Q: Generally?

A: It's often listed as having the rare spelling of “broach”. Just to add to the confusion.

Q: That's odd. Why so much confusion?

A: It's because the two words come from the same origin. According to the Grammarphobia blog, it was around the 1300s that it turned up in Middle English, with the original spelling actually being “broche”.

Q: I think I got one of those from the bakery this morning.

A: No, that's a “brioche” and completely unrelated.

Q: Actually the joke's on you – it was a croissant.

A: Well anyway, for a while you had two sharp, pointy things competing for the same word. The first was our ornamental pin, while the other was a sharp weapon or tool to skewer or pierce with.

Q: I see.

A: By the 1500s, two new spellings had emerged – “broach” and “brooch” yet even then the dictionary of the day would regularly mix them up. Eventually it settled on “brooch” for our pin and “broach” for that sharp piercing tool.

Q: But “broach” is a verb usually?

A: That's right. The noun usage faded somewhat. In its place, the verb “to broach a subject” became a thing, along with the less figurative “to broach” meaning to pierce something. These days we still use both, but it's the conversational one that is more common. For example: “Can we broach the subject of your ugly brooch?”

Q: So “broach” means to bring something up in a discussion?

A: Correct.

Q: And “brooch” is the most common spelling for those ornamental pins that my Grandma likes to wear.

A: Exactly.

Q: Great. Well, I'm certainly glad I broached this topic.

A: Indeed. And if it helps with remembering the spelling (but not the pronunciation!), imagine giving your brooch a smooch.

Q: Nice. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and help my Uncle Tim, who's at the top of his field.

A: Oh really? What does he excel at?

Q: No. He's literally at the top of his field. I'm going to help him look for buried treasure with my metal detector…

A: Groan…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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