Friday, 14 August 2009


The OED suggests (with a tentative 'perh.') that the name of the country Brazil comes from 'brazil wood' the name of a red timber found there (the country being named after the wood, not the other way about). As for the etymology of this, they're not sure: perhaps from French briser, 'to break' (because the wood is particularly frangible?); perhaps the Spanish brasa, 'a glowing coal', because of its colour.

There's another theory, though less happily advanced. Irish myths spoke of a phantom island hidden by the mist except for one day each seven years, located in some nebulous way off the southwest Irish coast, and called either Brazil or Hy-Brazil. These names, the excellent wikipedia tells me, 'are thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning 'descendants (i.e., clan) of Breasal'), one of the ancient clans of northeastern Ireland. cf. Old Irish: Í: island; bres: beauty, worth; great, mighty.'

The story that Pedro Álvares Cabral thought that he had reached this island in 1500, thus naming the country of Brazil seems to be unsubstantiated. It would be nice, though: the notion that Brazil is neither broken nor glowing but the inheritance of a mighty and beautiful Irishman. Of course it has lost its Í, for it is not an island; and in almost every other respect - its size, its forestation, its ethnic mix, its culture, its latitude - it remains a kind of anti-Ireland. But the child need not resemble the parent; and Brazil is southwest of Ireland ...

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