The word “brouhaha” has appeared in Tablet Magazine well over a dozen times. In one instance, I fashioned a cognate from it: a brouhaha that is brewing, I suggested, is in fact something that is brouhaha-ing. It’s a handy, flexible word: it concisely describes any number of the types of conflicts that are journalism’s bread and butter; it has the added advantage of being not a little onomatopoetic. So I thought nothing of deploying it freely and frequently.
I’m … sorry?
I received a lovely email recently from one Bonny Fetterman. “I wonder if you are aware of the etymology of the word ‘brouhaha’ because if you were, you probably wouldn’t have used it in this title,” she wrote (I had typed it in reference to, of all things, the ADL). She continued, citing her high school teacher: “It was an anti-Semitic term in France, based on the words of Hebrew prayer, ‘Baruch atah … ’ which sounded like a confused mess to Frenchmen passing synagogues and came to signify a loud, confused mess.” Wait, really?
A quick check of an online etymological resource revealed: “1890, from Fr. brouhaha (1550s), said by Gamillscheg to have been, in medieval theater, ‘the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.’ Perhaps from Heb. barukh habba‘ ‘blessed be the one who comes,’ used on public occasions (cf. Psalm 118).” Ms. Fetterman pointed me to Merriam-Webster, which reports, “etymologists have connected the French derivation to that frequently recited Hebrew phrase, distorted to something like ‘brouhaha’ by worshippers whose knowledge of Hebrew was limited. Thus, once out of the synagogue, the word first meant ‘a noisy confusion of sound’—a sense that was later extended to refer to any tumultuous and confused situation.”
On the one hand, there is something elegant about the fact that the word once connoted “the cry of the devil disguised as clergy.” On the other hand, according to Ms. Fetterman, “I bristle every time I hear the term,” and so out of respect to her and other linguists among our readers, we will try to refrain from using it. Sincerest apologies for this kerfuffle.