Brain: etymology and comparative linguistics

Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Martinsried, Germany
gwk AT

What is the origin of the noun "brain"; a word used to name the most complex organ in the universe of living objects? In old English it is "braegen", and is the word that still exists in other western Germanic languages, e.g. "brein" in Danish and Frisian. In the north German local dialects the term "bregen" is used, but only in the butcher's vocabulary for designating the brains of slaughtered animals. This edible material has been used as a component of sausages known as "Bregenwurst", e.g. in Hannover, the capital of Lower Saxony. The old English "braegen", a term derived from the old high German "bregan" or "bragma", has striking similarities to the old Greek “brechma”, meaning  the front part of the head.

This anatomical designation is also the origin of the word for brain in high German, Dutch and Nordic languages e.g. Gehirn or Hirn, "herse" (the Netherlands) or "hjärna" (Sweden). This word stem goes back to the old high German "hirni" which means head, apex or the uppermost part of the skull of animals, and is also equated in many mammals with "horns", in gothic "haurn", latin "cornu" close to the "cerebrum", old Greek "keras", "kara" for head and "kranion" for skull, the indoeuropean stem is "ker" and the original Sanskrit word for head "sirsa". Classical Greek precisely describes the brain as "the contents of the skull", i.e. as "encephalon", a noun that has survived more than two thousand years and is still used in medical terminology.

Poster Session
Saturday, 23 June 2007, 10:00 - 10:30 am

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007