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I’ve had this personal hypothesis in the back of my mind for many years now about the etymology of the word “broker”.

I have gathered a few pieces of the puzzle (many of them in French and a few of them in English) but I have no firm evidence to back it.

Now that I've come across EL&U, with its high concentration of English Language enthusiasts of all horizons, I’d like to request some assistance, especially regarding the English side of the story.

Many English etymological dictionaries qualify the origin of “broker” as uncertain, and others are just content with mentioning immediate ancestors of the modern word. But there is possibly a more captivating story to this particular word.

In my opinion broker comes from brooch/broach. Here is why.

  • In French the word for “broche” covers 2 English words: “brooch” (the jewel) and “broach” (roasting spit). In a larger sense, a “broche” is any spiky tool used for piercing.
  • One of these broaches, shaped like a “T”, with a drill-bit like end, was used during wine auctions to pierce sample barrels so that potential buyers could taste the wine and make their best buying offer according to the quality of the beverage.
  • Incidentally the French term for the pitcher that would be placed below the subsequently inserted tap is “broc” (nb, origin :uncertain in the wiktionary entry).
  • Also well documented is the fact that the person in charge of piercing the hole is the “brocheur” (or “broceur”).

My conjecture is that this man was also in charge of the auction, hence the “broker”. He would serve as a “broker” between the seller and the buyers. Although it seems logical, I've found this explanation nowhere.

So my questions are:

  1. Could you please provide some English words, idioms, citations or reference that could possibly back this conjecture?

  2. Or do we have an altogether completely different etymology, I might have missed ?

That's the main question. However I have also a couple of secondary requests, that could actually help reaching a conclusion.

  1. I’ve also tried to find some genre paintings (in the taste of Netherlands Golden Age genre paintings) but with no success so far.
  2. Also of interest would be to know whether there were English wine brokers (medieval England had a lot of vineyards) or whether the “broker” meaning was imported from the French “brocheur”, in which case one would have to admit that this meaning was lost, since French eventually borrowed the English word.
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3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Looking in the OED, I see support for the wine-cask-piercing tool origin, but not for the origin clearly involving one in charge of an auction. There is a connection to wine selling, and this might be close to what you are theorizing.

Etymology: Middle English brocor, -our, brokour, < Anglo-Norman brocour (also broggour) = Old Northern French brokeor ( < Latin type *broccātōrem), nominative brokiere ( < Latin *broccātor) of which Godefroy has one example explained by him as ‘celui qui vend du vin au broc’, as to the precise sense of which see below. The Central French equivalent was brocheor, brochière; and the word is the agent noun of the Old French vb. brochier, Old Northern French brokier ( < Latin *broccāre) in the sense ‘to broach’ or ‘tap’ a cask. Brocheor, brokeor stand in precisely the same relation to the n. broche, broc, and the vb. brochier, brokier, as tapster or rather the earlier tapper stand to the n. tap, and vb. to tap in Teutonic: the brocheor, brokeor, brokour, or broker, was lit. a tapster, who retailed wine ‘from the tap’, and hence, by extension, any retail-dealer, one who bought to sell over again, a second-hand dealer, or who bought for another, hence a jobber, middleman, agent, etc. Compare sense of Latin caupo.

The Romanic vb. broccare was evidently < brocco, brocca in the sense of ‘spike, piercing instrument’ ( < Latin broccus, brocca adj.: see broach n.1). But these nouns appear to have afterwards had their sense modified from the verb, so that in the Old French vendre à broke, or à broche, in modern French vendre à broc, the sense passed from ‘broach’, to ‘broaching, tapping’, and at length to ‘the quantity of wine drawn at a broaching or tapping’, and hence ‘the jug or vessel which held this’, as in modern French broc (from 5 to 10 litres). Anglo-Norman had also a derivative form abrocour, and there were Anglo-Latin words abrocator, abrocamentum; also brocarius ‘proxeneta, interpres et consiliarius contractuum’, and abrocarius. Brocarius appears to have been formed on the n. (broc(c)a, broc(c)us); abrocarius must have been formed on the apparent analogy of brocator, abrocator.

The earliest usages have already lost any connection to wine tapping or selling.

1377 Langland Piers Plowman B. v. 130 Amonges Burgeyses haue I be dwellynge at Londoun, And gert bakbitinge be a brocoure [C. brocor] to blame mennes ware.

1393 Langland Piers Plowman C. vii. 95 Ȝut am ich brocor of bakbytynge · and blame mennes ware.

1582 R. Stanyhurst tr. Virgil First Foure Bookes Æneis i. 14 For gould his carcasse was sold by the broker Achilles.

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Yes, it looks like another possible explanations was actually reselling in smaller quantities. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 20 '11 at 23:02
I eventually got access to the full OED and I'm amazed at the wealth of detail it has on that single word. As you point out, the bottom line seems to be that reselling in smaller quantities preceded the modern sense of middle man in brokerage. So it has noting to do with auction as I initially thought. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 23 '11 at 17:13
@alain -- yes, great resource, if often overwhelming! I'm glad you got to the bottom of it.... –  jbelacqua Mar 23 '11 at 18:17
I like the now-lost wine reselling thought. In the Jesse Livermore autobiography, "Reminiscences of a Stock Operator," he describes the beginning of his career at bucket shops, where they would sell stocks or commodities in smaller quantities (like 5 shares or a fraction of a sugar contract). –  rajah9 Apr 7 '11 at 15:27

etymonline is not very definitive, but ascribes most likely to Old French brochier. I would then assume that this comes from the same etymology as broche, which is from Latin brocchus (as indicated in my Littré). Broker would thus share, though by different means, the etymology of broach.

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I think it's probably instructive to think of the word broach meaning to "raise (a sensitive or difficult subject) for discussion", which is an alternate (and these days preferred) meaning of the word and therefore comes from the same etymology as that of piercing a cask to draw liquor.

From NOAD:

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French brochier, based on Latin brocchus, broccus ‘projecting.’ The earliest recorded sense was [prick with spurs,] part of the general meaning [pierce with something sharp,] from which sense 2 arose in late Middle English . Sense 1, a figurative use of this, dates from the late 16th cent.

This feels to me like what a broker does more than tapping a keg. The sense may be more of opening, starting, raising, or getting something going instead of pricking with a tool (even though that is the inspiration). It is in the transition to the figurative usage that I think broker resides. That is, if I understand your question completely.

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+1. I knew this idiomatic expression and actually found it quite puzzling. In the context of starting a heated discussion about quality and price, this makes more sense indeed (regardless of whether the brokered commodity is wine or something else actually). Thx, makes more sense like this. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 20 '11 at 23:29

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