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“brav” vs “brave”

So, today, while doing my German reading, I came across this sentence:

  • Thomas war ein braves Kind.

“Cool” I thought, Thomas was a courageous child. But as I read on this made less and less sense.
That’s how I found out that German brav and English brave are actually false friends, and at least to me, it’s one of the weirdest and most confusing pairs ever.
Because what the German sentence actually means is something like this:

  • Thomas was a quiet, well behaved child.

The German brav is mainly used for kids and also pets and the core idea is listening to what your parents tell you and not doing anything “rogue”.

  • Sei brav, während Mutti nicht da ist.
  • Be a good boy/girl while mommy is gone.

And the weirdest thing is the family tree, because brav and brave are indeed related and what’s also related is the word barbarian.

The origin is the ancient Greek word bárbaros which meant “non-Greek, raw, uncultivated”. In Latin, this later shifted more toward savage, wild and from there, it slowly started being used in the context of courage. That’s actually also where the “praise” bravo! comes from. Just think of a crazy stunt… it’s wild, it’s courageous and you’re impressed. 

And this notion of praise also helped me wrap my head around how German brav ended up with the meaning it has. Think of dog owner saying “Bravo” after the puppy managed to sit still for a minute.

The German brav originally also was about courage, but there was also a notion of being adequate, praiseworthy. And that’s where the word shifted.

Still, I’m sure this will throw me off again when I read it. It’s just such a weird twist of meanings.


By the way… the German word for brave and courageous is mutig. Which sounds suspiciously like moody. I’m not entirely sure if they’re related. I’ll dig into it. But that’d be another interesting family.