Illustration from Die Gartenlaube, 1876.
“Brrr! It’s cold!” I exclaimed the other day, because it was.
“Did you just say brrr?” my friend asked.
“I did indeed.”
“People don’t say that; they just write it.”
“That’s not true. Do people say ow? Or ouch? Or achoo?”
“Yes. But they only write brrr. Or make a general shivering noise. They don’t actually sound it out.”
I maintain that this is nonsense.
True, I haven’t been able to track down many literary citations. When I tried to find examples, I could only come up with the Beastie Boys song “Brrr Stick ‘Em” and, of course, the part of Bring It On where the cheerleaders chant, “Brrr, it’s cold in here/ There must be some Clovers in the atmosphere.” While it’s in the dictionary, they don’t specify whether it’s spoken, and it’s not included on most lists of onomatopoeias.
And, yes, just reading words can get someone in trouble. What if it was like the period in second grade where I mispronounced Phoebe, or the several years where I avoided saying chimera out loud? I didn’t want to be like the Brazilian guy in my college dorm who sometimes said “What ho?” at inappropriate moments with a heavy Portuguese accent because he’d read a lot of Wodehouse.
But the damage is done. Whatever its genesis, it is now associated in my mind with cold; I say it when I’m alone; I said it only this morning when I stepped out into the snow. And language is constantly evolving. If we needed more proof, here’s how it’s defined in the Urban Dictionary: “a word a girl uses when she first gets into the bed sheets.”
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