Historical examples of the word brocket - The Broket Archive

Etymology of the word brocket: historical examples

Contents of this page:

  1. The earliest record
  2. 13th C kings’ forests
  3. 14th & 15th C hunting manuals
  4. 19-20th C

1. The earliest record

The earliest surviving record of the word is in a late 12th C poetic context. The Vulgate Latin hinulus in Proverbs 5:19 was glossed with Old French brochet in the sense of ‘a male fawn’ or to be precise here ‘a calf’. This was in the Bible commentary of Alexander Nequam, the Anglo-Norman Abbot of Cirencester—d 1217:1

Vulgate: … cerva carissima et gratissimus hinulus
Nequam: hinnulus ceruulus igallico brochet
Nequam translated: hinnulus means ‘a male calf’, brochet in Old French.
Vulgate translated: … as the most loving hind and the most pleasant calf

To set this in context, following are the usual terms for the main types and stages of British deer:
 YoungAdult femaleAdult maleBritish Latin (male)
  Redcalfhindstag, hartcervus
  Roefawn, kiddoebuckcapriolus, cheverellus

Nequam was writing in Latin, here and there adding Old French glosses. Classical Latin for the adult females was: cerva, dama and caprea. He may have glossed hinulus with cervulus—the young of the red deer—because it was in the immediate context of cerva—a hind. Three of the 5 other instances of hinulus in the Vulgate were specified by cervorum—of red deer. This was perhaps unexpected since they were in the immediate context of capreae—roe does. Its other 2 instances were specified by capreae—of a roe doe:

Vulgate: … capreae hinuloque cervorum … Translated: … like a roe and the male young of harts … (Song of Songs 2:9)
Vulgate: … capreae aut hinulo cervorum … Translated: … like a roe or the male young of harts … (Song of Songs 2:17; 8:14)
Vulgate: … sicut duo hinuli capreae gemelli … Translated: … like two young male twins of a roe … (Song of Songs 4:5; 7:3)

Hinulus could thus signify any species of young male deer and if there were a need to be more specific, the kind of deer would usually be mentioned—up to at least 1287. Although Nequam glossed cervulus in Proverbs as brochet, the latter likewise could signify any species of young male deer, as illustrated by surviving written records from the 13th C—from as little as 6 years after Nequam’s death.

Nequam is the first source for the word brochet in dictionaries of Old French. But so many other records have been lost that too much attention should not be given to earliest known survivors. Since brochet existed at the end of the 12th C, what would have prevented it from existing at the start of the century, or indeed many centuries before that? Such a word is unlikely to have been coined only in the 12th C.

2. 13th C kings’ forests and parks

That the earliest surviving record of the word was poetic doesn’t alter the fact that the word was essentially a hunting term. Deer were indigenous to Britain, but hunting was for the Norman landowners. Red and fallow deer were strictly protected; killing their young was a punishable offence.

The Normans’ word brocket may well have been the word most used in England for young deer from the 11th C, whether for fawn, calf or adolescent. Anglo-Saxon agricultural vocabulary continued in use but the Northern French of the ruling incomers became the language of the law and the hunt.2 Old English just had the usual 3 animal categories for deer: young, adult female and adult male, and these may only have entered hunting terminology as English ‘moved up the social scale’.3 But rather than displacing the Anglo-Norman word the Old English calfe gradually nudged brocket up to refer to the adolescent stage between young and adult.

This is perhaps discernible from the known examples of the word in British Latin—most, if not all, occurrences of which related to young fallow deer:+Read more

Its use with different adult qualifiers may well indicate that brocket referred to all stages of the young animal. A fallow doe’s brocket would have referred to a fawn or calf still with its mother and a fallow buck’s brocket to the slightly older animal who had left to join the males. However, the use of feto and hinulus for ‘fawn’ and ‘calf’ by the middle and end of the century suggests that brocket had perhaps by then begun to take on the adolescent meaning.

3. 14th and 15th C hunting manuals

Hunting was the sport of kings and nobles; courtiers elaborated a stylised ritual with its terms and protocols. Prominent among those terms were animal names and particularly for the red deer, the centrepiece of the hunt. Refinements were coined not just for its stages between calf and adult, but for a number of adult stages too. By the time of two 14th C literary hunting manuals written for the king’s court brocket had been narrowed down to refer to:

  1. red deer
  2. a young red deer of a particular year.

Which particular year varied however:+Read more

These Middle English refinements carried through to later works: W Harrison for instance said a brocket was a stag in its 2nd year,14 but Blome said the 3rd year.15 And when lexicographers rely on Middle English—or later dependent—sources, rather than earlier Old French and British Latin ones, they can be misled.

The origins of these two hunting manuals show that the word brocket was originally a northern French word. It was first written in Middle English by 1307-27, although the earliest surviving attestation is c 1410.

4. The 19-20th centuries

The word brocket was common in Britain through the Middle Ages when life was predominantly rural—it has a place in a modern, single-volumed word-list of medieval British16—but it became gradually rarer as life became more urbanized. In some areas it was obsolete well before 1881:

“In the olden time he would have been called a … brocket.”17

But in some rural areas it wasn’t. The entries in Wright’s Dialect Dictionary for Somerset and Devon18 are all from hunting texts and a hunting text from 188119 read:

“To shoot a staggart, brocket, suckling, hind or calf is unwarrantable.”

Its use in Britain in the 20th C in this sense was an archaism, but the word was still regularly included in dictionaries, even smaller ones like Chambers Reader’s Digest Universal Dictionary.20 But those orientated towards usage did not have it, like Collins Cobuild,21 BBC English22 and Concise Oxford23—it is not a word of today. The authority on British deer de Nahlik24 did not mention the word and Vesey-Fitzgerald25 considered it arcane:

“Male calves in their second year grow in May a little knob under dark brown velvet on each side of the head. They are then (if they are Highland calves) called ”knobbers”, but if they are Exmoor calves or park calves they are called ”prickets”. These knobs in their velvet continue into the third year, when they become antlers. The calf is then called a ”brocket” by the particular, but a ”staggie” by everyone else.”

The American Mazama meaning was a 19th century development, first recorded 1837. Some dictionaries, like the Concise Oxford English Dictionary now give this as the only current meaning, as in the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s entry for Brocket:

“… any of several small deer of the genus Mazama, found from Mexico to South America… standing 43-69 cm. [17-27 inches] high at the shoulder … Males have short unbranched antlers.”

Page Last Updated: April 7, 2020


For full bibliographical details please see the sections Publications or Glossary.


[1] Nequam BL mss consulted: Egerton 2262 f 125v b, Harley 6 f 167r a, Harley 1034 f 267r, Royal 2D VIII f 72v penult., Royal 8A XXI f 181 r 5/6 (which has brochat) and BL ms Royal 5C V f 22v 4 (which has prochet). See Hunt 1991 vol 1 pp 235-45.

[2] Brander 1971 p 29.

[3] Roberts et al 1995 p 85; Briggs 1999 p 56.

[4] TNA C54/28 m 15.

[5] TNA C54/48 m 12.

[6] Select Pleas of the Forest, p 92.

[7] Select Pleas of the Forest, p 93.

[8] Select Pleas of the Forest, p xxv.

[9] TNA C54/93 m 10.

[10] Select Pleas of the Forest, p 144 (Glossary).

[11] Forest Proceedings, Treasury of Receipt, TNA E32/127 m 2d.

[12] BL ms Cotton Vespasian B 12, f 5v.

[13] BL ms Cotton Vespasian B 12, f 25v 22 - 26r 3.

[14] 1534 - 1593 p 226.

[15] 1832.

[16] Latham 1965.

[17] Jefferies 1881 vol 2 p 39.

[18] 1896 vol 1, p 410

[19] Greener p 510.

[20] 1994.

[21] 1988.

[22] 1992.

[23] 10th ed 1999.

[24] 1987.

[25] 1946 p 182.

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