The Grammarphobia Blog

Bragging rights

Q: I often use the phrase “brag on” when I speak of praising or boasting about my friends. One of those friends feels “brag on” is too slangy. What are your thoughts?

A: Your use of “brag on” as a verb phrase meaning to praise or to boast about isn’t slang, but it’s considered an American regionalism.

In standard usage, “brag” is paired with a different preposition—“about” or “of”—and it’s usually used in the sense of boasting, not praising.

The Dictionary of American Regional English combines both senses in its definition of “brag on” as “to praise or boast about someone or something.”

Today the usage is chiefly heard in midland America, according to DARE, but in the 19th century it was also heard on the East Coast.

The dictionary has examples ranging as far back as this one from Massachusetts in 1850: “It would have been somethin’ to brag on, I know.” In that citation, “brag on” clearly means the same as “brag about” or “boast about.”

DARE also has examples from other parts of the Eastern United States, including New York, Baltimore, and South Carolina.

But most of the examples recorded since the 1940s are from farther west: Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. All these speakers use “brag on” the way you do, meaning either to boast about or to praise.

Here are a few of the examples: “(He) brags on himself” … “He bragged on how big and how pretty my horses were” … “I bragged on all the kids and dogs and he invited me in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “brag” as “to vaunt, talk boastfully, boast oneself,” a usage first recorded in 1377.

When “brag” is followed by a preposition, the OED says, it’s generally “about” or “of.” In earlier times, though, the prepositions “in” and “on” were occasionally used with “brag,” according to the dictionary.

The OED, which describes the use of “brag in” and “brag on” as obsolete, doesn’t mention the regional American usage.

A sense of “brag” that arose in the 17th century—meaning “to declare or assert boastfully, to boast”—doesn’t need a preposition. It’s often followed by a clause introduced by “that,” according to Oxford citations.

Here’s an early example: “The verie meanest … bragged that they had bathed their hands in the bloud of a Lutheran” (from a 1631 edition of John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments).

Before we close, we can’t resist mentioning an etymological curiosity. No one has ever figured out the origin of “brag,” which dates back to around 1300 in one form or another (it’s been an adjective, an adverb, a noun, and a verb).

French has some similar words but they weren’t recorded until the 1500s, so French probably got braguer (to brag) from English rather than vice versa.

However, as the OED notes, a couple of 16th-century English derivatives, “braggart” and “braggery,” may have been borrowed from the French bragard  and braguerie.

In case you’re tempted to suggest that the Italians got there first with braggadocio, that’s a great suggestion but it’s not true. “Braggadocio” is an English word, a mock-Italian invention of the poet Edmund Spenser.

The story, as described in the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is that in The Faerie Queene (1590), Spenser combined “brag” with the Italian suffix -occhio to form the name of a character who personified boastfulness.

Spenser spelled the name “Braggadocchio,” and no doubt intended the end to be pronounced as in Italian—“kyo.” Today “braggadocio” is spelled, and pronounced, as if  it ended in “sheeo” or “sho.”

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