A history of ‘brusqueness,’ 1800 to the present


(A headline from the New York Times, 1887)

Is “brusque” the new “bossy”? Is “bossy” the new “lean in”? In the wake of Jill Abramson’s abrupt — some might say brusque — firing from the top job at the New York Times, many observers of the feminist and linguistic persuasions are taking a second look at the words we use to describe female leaders. Particularly that one word — so odd, so anachronistic — casually dropped twice in the New Yorker’s 2011 profile of Abramson, and again in the magazine’s update on why she was fired.

“The reason Sulzberger originally hesitated to appoint Abramson as executive editor,” Ken Auletta writes, “was a worry about her sometimes brusque manner.”

Brusque manner! We also describe men’s mannerisms that way, but we tend not to worry so much about those. After all, the word brusque, literally defined, means “markedly short and abrupt,” or “blunt in manner or speech often to the point of ungracious harshness.” It comes from the French, which comes from the Italian, which comes from the Latin bruscus — n., Butcher’s Broom, a stiff, spine-tipped plant also used as a laxative.

Men, of course, can be stiff. Women must be “gracious.”

Brusque entered English usage in the late 17th-century, though it didn’t go mainstream until considerably after that. It was much in vogue in the 1800s, when it appeared in Benjamin Disraeli’s first novel, “Vivian Grey”:

“Brusque, indeed! you may well say so. She nearly pushed me down in the Hall; and when I looked as if I thought she might have given me a little more room, she tossed her head and said, ‘Bed pardon, never saw you!’”

“I wonder what Lord Alhambra sees in that girl?”

“Oh! those forward misses always take the men.”

And if they were not “forward misses,” these unseemly brusque women, they were “amazons,” (“The Enemies of Women,” 1919), and if not “amazons,” then “mannish, athletic type[s] of girl[s]” (“Thanks, Awfully!” 1929).

After the 1930s brusqueness fell out of favor for men and women alike; it seems other synonyms came on the market, pushy and bossy among them. In 1981, the chairman of China’s communist party was brusque. In 1986, New York’s assembly speaker was.


The occurrence of the word “brusque” in books and magazines, 1800 to the present. (Google Ngrams)

In 2014, the New York Times has flung the phrase at many subjects besides its newly departed editor; The Black Keys were brusque on their last album; Jack Griffin was brusque when fired from Time Inc.; even New York City itself was brusque, on every day except New Year’s, when it lit up with “unabashed gratitude” upon Bloomberg’s departure.

It’s not bad company, truth be told: Rock bands. Bustling cities. Forward misses.

And yet before all of these, the Times had another notable deployment of the word — a short column, “Brisk and Brusque,” that apparently ran in the late 1800s. It consisted, as far as I can tell, of a string of cringe-inducing jokes.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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