How the Bracelet Got its Name

Do you know why that piece of jewelry that goes around your arm is called a bracelet? Or why a hair clasp is called a barrette? And how about brooch – that’s a strange name to call an ornament fastened to your clothing.

I make jewelry and normally all I think about is designs and colors. But one day my mind strayed further, piquing my curiosity as to why a bracelet is called a bracelet. A few hours at my local library revealed some very interesting origins of jewelry names.

Early jewelry was made only from gold, silver, and precious stones. Today’s jewelry may be made from any material, including base metal, wood, glass, or plastic. As you might expect, jewelry comes from the word jewel, which first entered the English language around 1250. Jewel was the anglicized version of the Old French word jouel. The French came from the Latin word jocale. The origin of that word is lost in time, but it meant plaything. Since many crafters of jewelry today make fun pieces perhaps we aren’t as far removed from the early makers of playthings we think we are.

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Barrette is, as you might guess, a French word. It came into use during the 12th century and is the diminutive of barre, French for bar. Barre is traceable to the Latin barra (which meant rod), but fades into obscurity before then. A bar is a long, evenly shaped piece of wood or metal used for a mechanical purpose. Today’s barrettes may be made from many more materials than wood or metal, but they are still used for the mechanical purpose of restraining flyaway hair.

And while we are on the subject of restraining, think about neckties, specifically the bola tie. Tie is derived from teagh, used in 10th century English. A teagh was a cord or string used for fastening, binding, or wrapping something. Bola is emish for ball, which came from the Latin word bulla, meaning bubble. In the 1800’s a bola in American emish was a weapon consisting of two or more heavy balls secured to the ends of one or more strong cords. The bola tie was invented about 1960 and because of its appearance, its inventor named it after the bola. Bola is NOT the same as bolo. A bolo is a machete used for hacking, primarily in the Philippines. Think “ouch” when you see the “o” in bolo and remember it isn’t something you want near your neck.

In Old England, before 900, your neck was known as your hnecca. Neck + lace makes necklace, a piece of jewelry consisting of a string of stones, beads, or jewels, or a chain of gold, silver, or other metal, meant to be worn around the neck. Lace in necklace does not come from the same source as the lace our grandmothers tatted, but rather means a cord or string for holding or drawing together. It was called las in Middle English, which came from the Ninth Century French word laz. It began as the Latin word laqueus, which means noose. Makes you wonder what those early necklaces felt like!

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Brocca is Latin for spike. In 12th Century England, it was broche, which was a pin or peg and was closely related to broach, which means to pierce. These are the root words for brooch, which is a large ornamental pin with a clasp, worn by women, usually at the neck. As often as I’ve pierced my finger trying to close a clasp, perhaps brooch is a better word choice than it first appeared to be.

And now for that ornamental band that we call a bracelet. Why don’t we call it an armlet or wristlet? There was a Latin word armus and an Old English word earm, both of which referred to the upper limb of a human body. These, however, related originally to the human ability to make things and are a part of the development of the word art. Another Latin word, brachiale, which means belonging to the arm, became Old French bracel. The diminutive of bracel is bracelet.

I’m ready to go back to the fun of making jewelry; and thinking about new designs and different colors to use. But I’ll also be thinking about how barras, bolas, laqueus, and broccas became jewelry; and why a bracelet is called a bracelet.

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By Sandra I. Smith, Writer
Copyright © Sandra I. Smith, 1996
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