All editors rely on a good ‘brief’, a word that has come a long way since it first crossed into English from French in the Middle Ages. An editor’s brief today is a short summary of what is required for a particular job.
‘Short’ is key here, for ‘brief’ is rooted ultimately in the Latin word brevis, for ‘short’. A breve, for the Romans, was a short summary of an official document, and, by extension, an official note or dispatch, the classical equivalent perhaps of a message by telegram. From then on, whether we’re talking underpants, the musical note ‘breve’, or the process of abbreviation, ‘shortness’ and ‘brief’ have gone together.
In the course of this lifetime, and before landing firmly on the editorial desk, ‘brief’ came to embrace a whole host of meanings. They included a royal mandate or a letter from the Pope on matters of discipline (less ample and solemn than a bull), and a letter of credentials given to mendicant friars. This is to say nothing of its cameo stints as a pawnbroker’s ticket, a cabbie’s licence, and a policeman’s warrant card.
In law, a brief can mean two things: the summary of the facts of a case, or the lawyer conducting that case. When it comes to humour of course, it can also mean a third. Barristers once traditionally carried a bag of green cloth in which to ‘carry their briefs’. Today’s members of the Bar are a little tired of the inevitable joke, though one slang dictionary from the 18th century does note that ‘These gentlement carry their clients’ deeds in a green bag; and, it is said, when they have no deeds to carry, frequently fill them with an old pair of breeches … to give themselves the appearance of business’.
Knickers and pawnbrokers, cabbies and criminals: for the most prosaic of words, ‘briefs’ have had a surprisingly adventurous ride.
Wonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.