No Messing Around? You lot have some brass!


Walking around the part of Prague where the professional offices are, you tend to see around the coppery plates outside the offices of legal firms, notaries, etc the notice “to neni mosaz” which means “this isn’t brass”. Presumably that’s to deter thieves from stealing the plaque and melting it down so that it can be made into plaques for other lawyers or maybe even sold back to the ones who lost it in the first place.

Whether this trade in stolen brass still goes on, or whether it is only feared that it may return because of the downturn, or whether it is just an excuse for the tightfisted to save money on their plaque, I know not, but this observation does give me a great excuse to meander into the word for brass in different languages, and what brass actually is in the first place.

So, brass basically is any alloy of copper and zinc. Sometimes aluminium is also added to reduce corrosion. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, so be careful not to confuse them, as bronze makes medals and brass makes tacks, and you don’t want someone pinning a tack to your chest.

Beyond that there was a Bronze Age which happened a long time ago, whereas brass was more popular in medieval times and you can also do brass rubbings of the brazen figures in churches, or even of lawyer firm’s brass plaques, if you like (maybe that’s another reason they changed away from brass ones in Prague?) True brass was probably not around much before Roman times, and the brass referred to in the old testament in the King James version is probably a mistranslation of bronze. Once people had brass, they liked it for its property of looking closer to gold. Intrinsically it is not less or more valuable than bronze, but since the colour is similar to gold, there’s no point in having brass, silver and gold medals, any more than there would be in having silver, gold and platinum medals if platinum has a similar colour to silver. It just gets confusing, and nobody needs that kind of messing about.

Is it for that reason that the German word for brass is in fact “Messing”? Let’s consider that fact, and look at the words for brass in a number of languages.

The French word for brass is “laiton”, which also mirrors the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian word, “latun’ ” the Icelandic “látún”. Spanish has “latón” and Portuguese  “latão” and Zamenhof chose for Esperanto the term “latuno”. However, the Italian word is a surprise, as this is “ottone”, deriving from the actual word in Latin “orichalcum” since they, the Latin speakers could not call the alloy “lat-” anything, as they had basically reserved that root for themselves and using it for their metal also demended a bit too much latitude. So the Latin term itself is taken from Greek ορείχαλκος (“beautiful copper”) while the so-called Latin languages in the main have taken a vulgate word for the alloy. Romanian’s “alama” is an exception, and may be from Dacian but it does resemble the Aragonese word for copper.

 Mässing is the Swedish term, like the German Messing and the Dutch, the Danish and half of Norwegian goes with “messing” too. The nynorsk version is “massing”. Even when we get into the Slavic regions other than the East Slavic region, we see cognates with the “messing” group. Polish has mosiądz, czech has “mosaz” as already mentioned and Slovak has mosadz, which is a compromise between the Czech and the Polish, if an unintentional one.

The South slavic states have “mesing” almost unanimously, while Albanian has the inexplicable “tunxh”. Apart from them and the Romanians, you have to say that the messing group dominates the region. There always was plenty of messing around there…

Even Latvian has the clearly related misiņš, although Lithuanian offers us “Žalvaris”, which seems fairly unique, although I’m getting hints of Hungarian “Sárgaréz. Where they get it from is not clear, as even the Estonians have “messing” while the Finns have “messinki” since there’s a lot of it in Helsinki. It is however clear that “yellow copper” is also the Chinese term for brass and while “genuine copper” is the Japanese set of kanji for brass, even though that is not chemically correct, since copper is the element, and brass is the alloy. But then, they do have wood and water as elements as well, so they probably have more to worry about scientifically than just simply the brass aspect…

In fact, the play on words between the Germanic and Slavonic old word for brass is not simply a coincidence – both have their root in old Indo-European “masso” (“I mix together”). There is a similar Latin word for mixes of metals and the Germanic root is “massinga”, -inga root showing the product of “massan” to mix or mesh metals together. It is like calling it a mish-mash of the component metals, and they gave the word to a broad region in Europe. The term in Modern German for a mongrel, “Mischling” has a similar set of ingredients to the origins of the German word for brass.

The English have a different root – most dictionaries say that ‘brass’ comes from a verb to “braise” or harden by fire, and this verb exists in both the Germanic and the Norman French sources of the English language. However, “pres” or “prais” is the word in most of the Celtic languages – could this be a loan word from the English term brass or could the answer really be that English loaned it from the celts, and anglicised it? Old English had “mæsling” for brass, placing English firmly in the ‘messing’ group. and looking very similar to “Mischling”. Maybe the English liked the sound of this metal in the mouths of the Celts, and took it over from them, and the whole idea of braising and brazier are just folk etymologies? Certainly the fact that each Celtic language seems to have the same root here, be they Prythonic or Goidelic, suggests that the root must be old.

What do you think?

About David J. James

53 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 07/08/2010, in Blog only, Languages and Linguistics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Given that the Welsh word “pres” has been around longer, I’d be more than open to the idea that “brass” is one of the few words that English took from the Celts. This itself makes me wonder whether this means that the Celts knew things about that metal which were transferred to the English and with the technology transfer went the word, which is often the way. I don’t have much evidence, so this is of course conjecture, but maybe worth the research if there are any academic linguists reading.

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  2. I think it’s very interesting that “messing” is so common. And that you knew about the different spelling in Nynorsk (I didn’t, and I write in Nynorsk every day). I don’t know what to say about the possible Celtic origins of “brass”. Both explanations seem plausible, but according to Wiktionary, it comes from Old English “bræs” (although it doesn’t list the meaning). At first I thought that would place it before the Norman conquest, and therefore make the Celtic origin more likely, but then it went on to list Scandinavian cognates. Could it be that the English and Celtic words are actually cognates?

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