The Grammarphobia Blog

Briefing paper

Q: Am I correct that the word “brief” applies to temporal length, such as a meeting or a vacation, but not to something linear, such as a document? Hence, a “brief nap” but a “short essay”? Speaking of naps …

A: Nope, both meanings of “brief” are well established. In fact, they date back to Middle English.

When the adjective entered the language, around 1400, it meant “of short duration, quickly passing away or ending,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But very soon, around 1430, it was recorded in another sense—“short, concise”—as in a brief speech or essay. This meaning emerged, the OED explains, from the sense of “occupying short time in speaking or reading,” and hence “consisting of few words.”

Shakespeare used the word in both senses.

The first meaning is evident in this familiar quotation from Macbeth (perhaps 1606): “Out, out, breefe Candle, / Life’s but a walking shadow.”

And the second meaning is intended in this passage from Hamlet (1603): “The Chronicles / And Briefe abstracts of the time.”

The adjective came into Middle English from the Old French bref, which in turn came from the Latin brevis (short).

The dual meaning of “brief” should come as no surprise, since the Romans used brevis in several senses—conciseness of expression as well as time, distance, dimension, and so on.

Latin literature has many examples, from Cicero (Brevis a natura nobis vita data est—“The life given to us by nature is short”), Horace (Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio—“In trying to be concise, I become obscure”), and many others. 

It’s interesting to note that the English noun “brief” is older than the adjective. It was first recorded in 1330, when it meant a short piece of writing.

As the OED explains, the noun is descended from the Latin breve (“letter, dispatch, note”), a word that in late classical Latin came to mean a “short catalogue, summary.” 

“From official Latin the word entered at an early period into all the Germanic languages” except for Old English, the OED says. Instead, the noun “brief,” like the adjective, “appears to have entered early Middle English from French.”

This explains why the noun “brief” is used one way in English and another in the other Germanic languages.

Here (as in French), the noun “has remained more distinctly an official or legal word, and has not the general sense ‘letter,’ which it has acquired in continental Germanic,” the OED says.

Those Latin ancestors, by the way, live on in several English words: “abbreviate”; “abridge”; “brevity”; “breve,” a musical term for a short note; and of course “briefs,” a 20th-century word for short underpants—or “shorts,” if you prefer.

Enough. We’re ready for a nap ourselves.

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