Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”?
A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.”
And some US dictionaries also recognize the variant spelling “broach” when the word for the ornamental pin is pronounced like “roach.”
In fact, the noun was spelled neither “brooch” nor “broach” when it first showed up in Middle English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The OED has a questionable citation from the 1100s.)
The word was originally spelled “broche” when Middle English adopted it from broche, Old French for a pointed weapon or instrument.
In Middle English, “broche” was pronounced with a long “o” (as in “hope”), which accounts for the pronunciation you’re asking about, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
For a few hundred years, the word “broche” referred to both the ornamental pin and a pointed implement (lance, spear, skewer, awl, and so on). However, “brooch” was occasionally used for the pin, as in the OED‘s earliest example of the ornamental usage.
In the 1500s, English speakers began routinely using the “brooch” spelling for the ornament and the “broach” spelling for the sharp implement, but the spellings weren’t consistent and were often reversed, according to Oxford.
The contemporary acceptance of “brooch” for the pin and “broach” for the tapered tool is relatively recent. As Oxford explains, “the differentiation of spelling being only recent, and hardly yet established.”
In the OED’s earliest definite example for “broche” (from Legends of the Rood, circa 1305, a collection of tales based on the Bible), the word refers to a lance or spear: “A Broche þorw-out his brest born” (“A lance borne through his breast”).
The dictionary’s earliest definite example for the ornamental usage is from The Legend of Good Women, a poem by Chaucer from around 1385: “Send hire letters, tokens, brooches, and rynges.”
The usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin broccus (pointed or projecting). In late Latin, brocca referred to a pointed tool.
The Latin and French sources have given English several other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
The verb “broach,” for example, meant “to pierce” when it entered English in the 1300s, then came to mean to tap a keg in the 1400s. And English speakers began using “broach” metaphorically in the 1500s to mean “introduce a subject.”
The French verb brocher (to stitch), Ayto adds, has given both French and English the noun “brochure” (literally “a stitched work”).
Finally, the late Latin brocca has given English (via Italian) “broccoli.” (In Italian, brocco is a shoot or stalk, and broccolo is a cabbage sprout.)