What does 'breaking' mean?

Google tells me that the word 'break' comes from the Old English word brecan which means "to break." This is the sort of etymology that I don't like. Google gives me seven definitions of the word, and then tells me that the original word has the same meaning. Which one? I suppose I could assume the first one, "to separate" or "to cause to separate," but an assumption like that leaves me unfulfilled - I want certainty, though I do admit that any etymology will be uncertain to a degree. The other main definitions, roughly, are "to interrupt a sequence," "to fail to observe an agreement," "to crush the emotional strength," "to change suddenly," "to suddenly become public," and "to rush in a particular direction."

Etymonline is a bit more helpful with identifying the original meaning. It claims that brecan meant "to divide violently; to violate a promise; to break into; to burst forth; to subdue or tame." What I find interesting here is that the first, third, fourth, and seventh Google definitions correspond to the first, second, fifth, and fourth Etymonline definitions, meaning that three of the Google definitions (to interrupt a sequence, to change suddenly, and to suddenly become public) had not yet been associated with brecan back in the day, while in the other direction brecan could mean "break into," all by itself, whereas Google defines that phrase separately, which means "break" lost that meaning over time, but regained it so long as the preposition was included. Thus, presumably, an Old English speaker could say something like "break the house" and would need to disambiguate through context whether they were talking about a thief or about the old-timey version of a demolition man; whereas a modern English speaker can say "break the house" while resting assured that the listener would imagine the actual destruction of walls - assuming however that they were not in the midst of describing a poker game. Which just goes to show that "you win some, you lose some" in the process of altering the meanings of words; though in fairness, the second example involves a change in the meaning of "house," not "break."

Listed beneath the fifth Google definition, "to change suddenly," is the example of a voice "breaking," either due to emotion or to puberty. I wonder if this applies to all animals' voices? For example, consider a cat. Does a kitten's 'meow' break in a similar way during the equivalent of cat puberty? What about when a cat is meowing in the midst of significant mental drama? I doubt that last one applies - even assuming a cat meows in that circumstance, meows are pretty short, so there's not a lot of time to inadvertently reach that breaking point.

Searching on a word followed by a preposition often reveals further info. If I search on the phrase "breaks into", Google tells me that the whole phrase means (roughly) "to forcibly enter or open", "to interrupt a conversation," "to suddenly burst into song or laughter," and "to quicken one's pace." No etymology is given by Google for the entire phrase.

I find that researching the meanings of common words as above is a great aid to both writing and reading poetry. Realizing that a word could be used in more than one sense simultaneously opens up possibilities of understanding what is written in new and sometimes humorous or enlightening ways.

Consider the phrase "My cat breaks into vowels."

The last word seems out of place - what does it mean to "break" into vowels? In poetry, sensing that a word is out of place is often a clue that there is some wealth hidden within the words. The first image that comes to my mind is "My cat breaks into song," so there's my cat, belting out a Broadway musical, one little paw held to his breast, his second little paw stretched out in dramatic fashion. What could cause my cat to do such a thing? Before continuing with the poem in search of an answer that question, the oddness of the phrase makes me linger a bit.

Perhaps the meaning of "break into" here is "to forcibly enter" as in "My cat breaks into houses." Could a vowel be thought of, functionally, as a house? Maybe as a container of sound? So in a sense, I could interpret the phrase to mean that my cat is butchering sound. That's possible I suppose.

There is another possibility. The consonant "V" is a voiced version of the consonant "F", and they are both fricative (the air slides through the lips); whereas the consonant "B" is a voiced version of the consonant "P" and they are both plosive (the air doesn't "slide" through the lips - it puffs out). If I mentally replace the V with a B, I end up with "My cat breaks into bowels." That makes sense if my cat is a hunter. I have memories of a stray cat I would take care of, who would routinely appear at my front door with a dead mouse at his feet and meow loudly until I opened the door. Then he would strut about, full of pride, meowing throatily every so often as he displayed his catch; and he would look at me as if to say, "What? You do not want to take the choice cuts of this, our latest kill? Fair enough; I have made my offering to you as my Leader, and you have honorably noted my gift - and so I shall commence eating my portion." He would then begin to chow down on his lunch.

That image is actually what I had in mind when I came up with the title of my recent poem, "My Cat Breaks Into Vowels," complete with the similarity to the word "bowels." There is also the notion that singing is a way of elevated speaking - as in a religious ritual - in order to sanctify the proceedings; but that is the topic of another essay.

Speaking (if you will) of etymological sources, one book I love to look into for more obscure phrases beginning with particular words is Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. What does Brewer have to say about phrases which begin with the word 'break?'

It turns out, quite a bit. I'll paraphrase just a few gems of esoteric trivia.

The phrase "to break a butterfly on a wheel" means to engage in far more effort than is needed in order to achieve a task. Alexander Pope uses the phrase, for example, in his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot from 1735.

"Break a leg," meaning "good luck to you," presumably arose after John Wilkes Booth jumped down onto the stage at Ford's Theater after having shot Abraham Lincoln. Brewer casts doubt on this etymology, however, noting that he is unable to find any use of the phrase before the 1950's, and instead posits that it may derive from the German phrase Hals und Beinbruch, which he says means the same thing - i.e., good luck, but translated literally also involves the breaking of one's neck for good measure. I presume that the German phrase was therefore used sometime before the assassination of Lincoln, though Brewer doesn't say. Wiktionary in turn speculates that the German phrase comes from the Yiddish hatslokhe un brokhe, i.e., "success and blessing."

"To Break cover" is to rush out from a hiding place. Brewer says that foxes would have the openings to their dens covered up by hunters the night before they planned to hunt; their emergence thereupon would signal that the hunt was on.

When you "break Priscian's head," you break the rules of grammar. I find that modern experimental poetry tends to engage in this joyous pastime quite a bit. Priscian was an ancient Roman grammarian from the 500's AD, and Brewer notes uses of the phrase in English by the 16th century.

Brewer gives "Breaking a stick" its very own entry. He claims that American Indians (which tribes, he doesn't specify) would do this during marriage ceremonies, and gives his source as "Lady Augusta Hamilton's Marriage Rites." I presume by this that he means the 1822 publication by Lady Augusta of her book "Marriage Rites, Customs, and Ceremonies of All Nations of the Universe." I so love the titles that authors would give their works back in the day. Brewer then refers to a legend from an apocryphal gospel of Matthew (titled by him Pseudo-Matthew's Gospel) in which the virgin Mary has an array of suitors; they each lay an "almond stick" in a sanctuary, and the owner of the stick which miraculously buds overnight is to win her hand; and thus Joseph became her husband. He then says that a painting attributed to Raphael depicts one of the unlucky suitors as breaking his stick over Joseph's back.

Author's Note : this essay will appear in my upcoming book, My Cat Breaks Into Vowels, which is available for pre-order.