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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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5 Answers 5

up vote 7 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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references

Etymonline dates broker late 14c; and adds:

broc meant in addition to "that which breaks," "affliction, misery."

Opinions seem to be divided on the exact meaning of broker. Some etymologists believe that the expression is derived from the Anglo Norman brokour meaning "small trader". However, others claim it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon brocour, meaning "tapster", which in turn came from the Latin broccus, "protecting". Thus one who used a projecting device to obtain wine samples for examination was called a brocour (or broker).

  • 1) According to The Farlex Trivia Dictionary, originally a broker bought wine cheaply in quantity and sold it at a profit; a broker came to mean any retailer who did this, or a middleman/agent.

This is also confirmed in a book titled proudly: Now You Know Almost Everything: The Book of Answers by Doug Lennox (2005) It also states that Brocour first appeared in English 1377 in the narrative poem written by William Langland called

  • 2) Piers Plowmman:

    I haue lent lordes and ladyes my chaffare
    And been her brocour after, and boughte it myself.
    Eschaunges and chevesances, with such chaffare I dele,
    And lene folke that lese wol a lyppe at every noble.

Yet the following terms chaffare,merchandise; eschanges and chevesances, barter and loans; dele, deal; lene, lend; and lese wol a lyppe at, will lose a part of gold, do not suggest that the brocour was a wine trader or merchant. Wine spelled wyn in Middle English is indeed mentioned in Piers Plowmman but I could find none which specifically referred to the piercing of wine barrels or the trading of this beverage.

(1418) Grocer Lond.123: That noon Alyon Strav[n]ger or englyssh Brocour be resseyued in to the hoole Clothynge of the Feleshepe, of lesse than he be admitted thereto at a Qvarter day

  • 4) In an 18th century Complete Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1766) the authors take care in defining the term accurately

BROKER: a name given to persons of several and very different professions, the chief of which are exchange brokers, stock-brokers, pawn-brokers, and brokers, simply so called, who sell household furniture and second-hand apparel

No mention, unfortunately, of wine traders or brokers.

  • 6) But perhaps the most relevant reference I found which fails to confirm (but neither disproves) the OP's conjecture is taken from a volume of Parliamentary acts and bills titled verbatim: Volume the Fifth of the Rolls of Parliament contains of the reign of Henry Sixth
    Henry VI born in 1421, ruled England from 1422 to 1461 and was King of France until 1453

15th c. English Parliament, containing several instances of the expression "brocour"


idiom

Meanwhile, the OED reports that the expression broken, meaning to have no money, is dated 1593. And defines it as Reduced or shattered in worldly estate, financially ruined; having failed in business, bankrupt.

  • The idiom to be broke is attested from 1716.

If a broker is someone who handles other people's money, it makes sense that to be broke means to be penniless. On a website called Etymologically Speaking I found the following explanation for broke which, once again, is completely unrelated to a wine auctioneer or bidder.

Broke (In the sense of having no money)
Many banks in post-Renaissance Europe issued small, porcelain "borrower's tiles" to their creditworthy customers. Like credit cards, these tiles were imprinted with the owner's name, his credit limit, and the name of the bank. Each time the customer wanted to borrow money, he had to present the tile to the bank teller, who would compare the imprinted credit limit with how much the customer had already borrowed. If the borrower were past the limit, the teller "broke" the tile on the spot.

Source for OED citation: What is the origin of the expression “I'm broke”?


etymology

In A Glossary and Etymological Dictionary of Obsolete and Uncommon Words... by William Toone (1834) I found the following entry which suggests that the term broker was used to mean an intermediary for different types of transactions. The entry refers to a marriage broker, once known as a matchmaker, but nowadays called online dating, of which the world renown agency Match.com is a prime example. The term broker is said to derive from Old French broggour

snippet taken from dict. entry: "broker"

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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

Over three years after the question was raised I come across this interesting site, and I wanted to add that here in Spain many people think there might be a connection of the term broker with the Spanish alboroque. This word, from Arabic burûk (present, gratuity), with the article al-, and this related to báraka (luck, opportunity), in turn from beraká (blessing), was used to refer to a gift, a tip or a small feast given by dealers or individuals to a middleperson who had helped in a deal. The word in this meaning seems to be documented since the late 10th century. Apparently it was occasionally used to refer to the person, the agent himself, in which meaning it may be related to the Old Provençal abrocador (second-hand dealer, pedlar) and later Anglo-Norman abrokour/brocour. It also appears in Portuguese alborcar (to trade). I'm not saying that broker comes from Arabic through Spanish, but a relation between the terms seems very likely.

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