Briar - brier

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The two spellings briar and brier are variant forms of two words.

  • Originally, in Old English, the form was brere, sometimes written as breer or brear. This was a monosyllable ('brare', IPA: /brer/: in current English, the corresponding word has two syllables, 'br-eye-er', IPA: /ˈbraɪ er/. The general meaning is a "prickly, thorny bush or shrub in general" (OED, 1989). This used to include any thorny or prickly plant, particularly bramble; but is now largely restricted to wild roses.
    • Many anglophone children have been entertained by the Brer Rabbit stories popularized by Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), and published in book form in 1881, in the persona of Uncle Remus, where the wily 'Brer Rabbit' outwits his enemies such as 'Brer Fox' by his intimate knowledge of the area surrounding his home in the Brier patch.
  • The second meaning of brier (or briar) is 'the wood of the root of White Heath or Giant Heather(Erica arborea), a Mediterranean and African plant. The root is hard and heat-resistant, and is therefore well-suited for making pipes for smoking tobacco. These have come to be known simply as briars, pronounced as the other meaning with two syllables, 'br-eye-er', IPA: /ˈbraɪ er/. It is more logical here, as the root is the French word bruyère (formerly bruyer, meaning 'heath'). This was in error linked with the 'thorny' meaning.