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What is the origin of the word brasil?
What is its etymology? When and where was it first used?

When I went to primary school decades ago, I was taught that the name of our country had its origin in "Pau Brasil", a large tree abounding in the Atlantic Forest. Its red pigment was found to be great for dyeing fabric and it became popular and very much appreciated by weavers and textile manufacturers in European courts. Just like me, many Brazilian kids were offered the same explanation during their first school years.

However, ancient nautical charts, some of them from the fourteenth and fifteenth century, show what might have been an island named "Brasil" somewhere in the North Atlantic. There is also a "Monte Brasil" in Terceira, The Azores, a volcanic crater which is mentioned in one of those ancient charts.

By the time Brazil was discovered in 1500, the Azores had already been reached by the Portuguese more than half a century before. The explanation we were given at school, however, does not explain where the word "brasil" came from. Even if our country had been named after the tree, the word had already been coined long before.

My question is, then: what is the origin of the word "brasil"? When and where did it first appear ?

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Houaiss dictionary (Lisbon, 2002) in entries bras-, brasil and especially brasil- has detailed information on this issue, which is broadly consistent with the other answers, but adds more information, crucially, on first known uses. So, complementing with other sources here it is.

The common name brasil

Before the Portuguese first arrived to Brazil the Portuguese common name brasil and related words in other languages denoted the reddish dye made from wood of the caesalpinia sappan tree, which grows in tropical Asia, wherefrom Europe sourced the stuff. When the Portuguese arrived in Brazil and found they could get the same dye from the related Brazilian caesalpinia echinata tree they named it pau-brasil (‘brazil wood’). See Paubrasilia in Wikipedia and this Italian dictionary (in Italian).

According to Houaiss (entry brasil-) the word is attested as brasil in Portuguese in 1377 and in Spanish and Catalan in the 13th century, and in the 12th century as brasile in Italian and brésil in French; the dominant view is that brasil derives from brasa―Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, old Italian (now brace), and medieval Latin for ‘ember’―on account of its reddish colour. French Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales (CNTRL) agrees: it says brésil comes from breze, old French (now braise) for ‘ember’ too. It has been suggested it could come from the Arabic wárs (‘curcuma’, a different plant family that includes turmeric) via a supposed adjective *warsi. Etymoline, adds that alternative old Italian name versino lends support to this hypothesis; but linguist Juan Corominas says this is semantically and phonetically problematic (Houaiss, brasil-). Off course, brasil could come from brasa, and versino from wárs.

Still according to CNTRL (braise) brasa is attested in medieval Latin from the 10th century (“brasas carbones”), but beyond that its origin is uncertain. The commonly advanced hypothesis is that it is perhaps of Germanic orgin. But the word is not attested in West Germanic languages, which would be the most likely source for medieval Latin. Similar words with related meanings are attested in Scandinavian languages though: Norwegian and Swedish bras ‘sparkling fire’, dialectical Norwegian and Swedish brasa ‘to roast’, and dialectical Danish brasa ‘to blaze’. But, CNTRL ads, a direct borrowing from Scandinavian languages into Latin is unlikely for geographical and chronological reasons; so the Germanic origin requires one to assume that a radical bras- also exited in West Germanic (Gothic) languages, even though it is not attested.

Monte Brasil and Brasil in old maps

Some maps from early 1300s onwards do indeed show an Atlantic island named Brasil or something similar. In this 1339 Angelino Dulcert map the name appears on an imaginary island off the west coast of Ireland (História dos Açores article in Portuguese Wikipédia says the name is Bracile, but I cannot see any e at the end of word). In various other 1300s maps, from 1351 on (see History of the Azores in Wikipedia) the name shifts to what roughly matches the Terceira island of the Azores. This was before the official (re)discovery of the Azores, which began in 1427.

“I. de brasil” appears again in the 1436 Andrea Bianco, a bit of which I show below. This map improves on the earlier ones, and the islands more closely resemble the Azores. I had to rotate that portion of the map some 60 degrees anticlockwise to get the alignment right though (same problem with earlier maps). “I. de brasil” is the easternmost island of the central group, as Terceira in the real world.

enter image description here Bit of the 1436 Andrea Bianco map rotated some 60 degrees anticlockwise (names upside down in the original)

Then in this 1584 real map of the Azores, we have a “p. del Brazil”, a peninsula sticking out from the southern shore of Terceira. This is Monte Brasil; compare with today's map and pictures. Some maps from this time still show an imaginary Brasil island off the coast of Ireland too.

Clearly some names from the old maps were used to name the (re)discovered islands: “Corbomarinos” (literally ‘marine raven’; ‘cormorant’) island in the old maps matches Corvo (‘raven’) in the real Azores, and there is a “san jorji” island in the old maps, and a São Jorge in the real Azores. “Brasil” appears to have been demoted from an island to one of its peninsulas.

So as far as Portuguese language is concerned, what happened here is that a Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan word was used in this series of maps. Why mapmakers, most of them Italian, chose this name is not certain. As discussed already in Seninha’s answer, it could come from the Irish family name Bressail (see article in Wikipedia) or it could be the common name brasil itself inspired by Pliny’s references to “purple islands” in the Atlantic, brasil dye being not of an altogether different colour (see Etymoline). It could also be some combination of both, old mapmakers creatively relying on all sort of sources for their maps.

Name of the country Brasil

There have been no end of hypotheses as to the origin of the proper name Brasil. Houaiss (entry brasil-) lists sixteen. It goes on to say though that the more recent studies and presentations of the issue give brasil the brazil wood tree as the origin of Brasil the name of the country. And really there can be no doubt about it. Here is Fernão Lopes de Castanheda (1500-59) writing on the issue in 1551, barely fifty years after the Portuguese first set foot on Brazil (História do Descobrimento e Conquista da Índia pelos Portugueses, vol. I, cap. 31):

Nesta terra mandou Pedralvares meter hũ padrão de pedra cõ hũa Cruz, & por isso lhe pos o nome terra de santa Cruz, & despois se perdeo este nome & lhe ficou ho do Brasil por amor do pao Brasil

João de Barros (1496-1570), writing one year later in 1552, says the same, regretting the loss of the name Terra de Sancta Cruz (Décadas da Ásia,, 1778 edition, Dec. I, Livro V, cap. II, p. 391):

per o qual nome Sancta Cruz foi aquella terra nomeada os primeiros annos […] daquella terra começou de vir o páo vermelho chamado Brazil, trabalhou que este nome ficasse na boca do povo, e que se perdesse o de Sancta Cruz

So it looks as though Brasil was the common name of the land from early on, and Terra de Santa Cruz was just an official name that did not catch on. The earliest known use of brasil in a toponym in connection with the country Brazil was in the 1502 Cantino Map, which shows a “Rio D Brasil” (‘river of Brazil’) near Porto Seguro (see Name of Brazil in Wikipedia). The name “R DE BRASI” is a lot clearer in this 1508 Johan Ruysh's map, about half way between the “circvluvs capricorni” and the “circvlvs aeqvinoctialis” (Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator). And in 1506-9 Duarte Pacheco Pereira already uses “terra do Brazil daleem do mar Ociano” to refer to the whole coast from, if his latitudes are correct, modern day Ceará all way down to Santa Catarina (Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, liv. I, cap. 7, p. 16, 1892 edition)

Spelling matters: Brasil or Brazil

The word was originally spelled with and s. There was variation, but in other respects, not in the s. Houaiss attests both brasil and brasill in 1377. And in the diaries of Vasco da Gama expedition to India (1497-8) you find, referring to the dye, “brasill” and brasyll. But from the 16th century you start seeing the name both with s and z; you even find the two forms in same text. For instance, João de Barros has Brazil in the quote above, but “Brasil” here in the same book.

What happened was that old Portuguese, unlike now, had two voiced fricative consonant sounds, one represented by z, the other by intervocalic -s- (so coser ‘to sew’ and cozer ‘to cook by boiling’ were pronounced differently, see this question). But over time, starting in the 13th century in Lisbon and the Algarve, the two sounds merged into one. So you start seeing the same word, not just Brasil, spelled sometimes with s, sometimes with z. It was only in 1911 in Portugal and 1943 in Brazil that official spellings were approved that kept one version only, the one according to etymology, Brasil in our case. The main dictionaries from 1712 to the 20th centuries spelling reforms show Brasil only though. Curiously enough they show both brasa and braza, implicitly preferring the latter: in entry brasa they simply tell you to look up braza.

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  • Great answer! By the way, your link to Johan Ruysh' map misgoes to Cantino Planisphere. I think that the different nomenclature for brazilwood and sapanwood is recent. The Europeans probably considered both to be different varieties of the same plant; and when they first see brasilwood in Americas, they had yet awareness of what it is. Both are morphologically identical (at least when I saw images of the malayan one in Internet, I noticed the close resemblance of its fruit and spiky trunk to the brazil close my house). – Seninha Sep 8 '17 at 18:10
  • Great research work. +25. More if I could. Thank you. – Centaurus Sep 9 '17 at 0:00
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    @Seninha, thanks, I benefited from your own and José's research too. It does indeed. I've fixed it now. Did you mean "they hadn't yet" in your comment?I think Europeans, except perhaps for the odd adventurer, had not seen the Asian tree, only its wood. And this, probably ground and dried already, as it would make it cheaper to trasport. Couldn't find in what shape brasil was imported from Asia. – Jacinto Sep 9 '17 at 12:08
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    @Seninha, in Johan Ruysh' map we find "r. de brasi" and "ligna brasi" (in the note to the left of the river). So is "brasi* meant to be Latin? Would it be then some declension of brasa? – Jacinto Sep 9 '17 at 12:28
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    "Brasi" seems to be a contraction of "brasil(ia)", since the declensions in the sidenote do not match. The map is full of contractions and word joinings. The last sentence of the sidenote, "AVEHUNTUR HINC[A]LUSITANIS LIGNA BRASI ALIAS VERZINI ET CASSIAE" means "Is carried from here, by the Lusitanians, brasil wood, or versine, and cassias", "ligna" is the plural form of the word which generated Portuguese "lenha", "versine/versino" is the other name you said, "cassias" is a spice (probably oregano or cinnamon). – Seninha Sep 9 '17 at 16:37
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Are you talking about the mythical island of Hy-Brasil?

The Mythological Celtic Island

It was first identified by Irish myths as a phantom island (in the same way "Atlantis" is a phantom island in greek mythology). The name of the island comes from the name of the Celtic tribe Bresail (as described by the book A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology), or from the name of the island's ruler, the king Bres (as described by the book The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore). In both cases, the name may be related to the, now archaic, Irish word "breas", which means "might, worth, valuable, etc." mainly when related to royalty (see the dictionaries d1, d2 and d3). Despite the similarity, this name is probably not related to the name of the South American Country.

The Portuguese Island

There is also another place, also named Brasil, in Azores. I couldn't find much information about this usage of the name, but it seems that it was based on the ember-like color of a dye extracted from a resin named Dragon's blood. Curiously, the name of Brasil (the modern country) is also based on the color of a dye (which, in this case, is extracted from the Pau-Brasil). Maybe it was a standard to name such colour as "brasil", independent from the source (pau-brasil and related species in South America and Caribbean Islands; and dragon's blood in Africa and Atlantic Islands).

Here is the paragraph about the Azorean island of Brazil, in the 1911 version of the Enciclopædia Britannica:

BRAZIL, or Brasil, a legendary island in the Atlantic Ocean. The name connects itself with the red dye-woods so called in the middle ages, possibly also applied to other vegetable dyes, and so descending from the Insulae Purpurariae of Pliny. It first appears as the I. de Brazi in the Venetian map of Andrea Bianco (1436), where it is found attached to one of the larger islands of the Azores. When this group became better known and was colonized, the island in question was renamed Terceira. It is probable that the familiar existence of “Brazil” as a geographical name led to its bestowal upon the vast region of South America, which was found to supply dye-woods kindred to those which the name properly denoted.

The Insulae Purpurariae (purple islands), which the Enciclopædia Britannica says the Azorean Brasil Island's name is descended from, is cited by Pliny the Elder in the sixth book of his series «Naturalis Historia» (Natural History). "Purple islands" is how he called the Madeira Archipelago, after the Gaetulicam purpuram tinguere (gaetulian purple dye), a valuable purple-color dye traded by the Gaetuli berber people, and used in fine roman clothes (see «Masculinity and Dress in Roman Antiquity» and «The Fashion World of Cleopatra Selene and the Augustan Age»).

The "brazil" woods

The red dye named brazilin, extracted from the South American and Caribbean woods, was known by Europeans during Middle Ages. This dye can be also extracted from an Asian plant named Sappanwood, from the same taxonomical family of brazilwood. Sappanwood was traded in Medieval Europe from Asia (mainly India) in powder form and was highly valuable.

Here is the paragraph about the Sapanwood, in the 1911 version of the Enciclopædia Britannica:

SAPAN WOOD (Malay sapang), a soluble red dyewood from a tree belonging to the leguminous genus Caesalpinia, a native of tropical Asia and the Indian Archipelago. The wood is somewhat lighter in colour than Brazil wood and its other allies, but the same tinctorial principle, brazilin, appears to be common to all.

In some translations of the book "The Travels of Marco Polo" (c. 1300), the Sappanwood, which the author found in Asia, is referred as "brazil" (see ws1, ws2).

Not only sappanwood was referred as brazil, but some other plants from the genera Caesalpinia, Brasilettia, Paubrasilia, Haematoxylum, and Peltophorum were either (some of these genera are synonyms, depending on author). The Carib and Central America have their own "palo de brasil", the Haematoxylum brasiletto. (This is kinda funny, because the Mesoamerican "palo de brasil" does not occur in Brazil. It's name is not related to the country, but to the dye.)

The Caribbean Islands

There are other places in the American Continent which are or were called "Brasil", possibly in reference to Pau Brasil. One of these is the Isla Brasil, in the Coast of Venezuela.

The portuguese map Cantino Planisphere (1502), one of the first maps of the new continent, gives the name "Ilha do Brasil" (Brasil Island) to what is now Aruba (or Curaçao, second this Article). Species of plants from the same family of Pau Brasil occurs/occurred in Venezuela and Aruba as well as in Brasil. See bellow a section of the map zoomed in the proper region, Ilha do Brasil is the blue one.

Ilha do Brasil

The Rio do Brasil

In adition to the Ilha do Brasil, The Cantino Planisphere map also identifies a river named "Rio d. Brasil", again in reference to brasilwood. This river occurred in the territory of modern Brasil.

Rio d. Brasil

This Article says that this river is probably the modern Rio Mutary, in the municipality of Santa Cruz Cabrália, near the place where there was the first meeting of Portuguese people (Cabral's crew) and Brazilian natives (Tupiniquins tribe).

Afterword

The word "brasil" related to a pigment, was used in Europe years before the discovery of modern Brasil, and was then assigned to several places, in the American continent, where brazilwood was extracted.

As dummy's guess, I would infer that the name of the country seems to be more related to the name of the Azorean island (since the similar origin from colour name), than to the Irish Island (which have homophonous, but unrelated etymology from Celtic sources).

See also the Wikipedia's article on the Name of Brazil

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  • Great answer. It seems to me you think the Azors are part of the African continent. ("pau-brasil in South America, dragon's blood in Africa") As for "Ilha do Brasil", shown on a map, I'm not sure but I'll bet our country hadn't received it's current name yet in 1502. Before it was named Brazil, it had been named "Ilha de Vera Cruz" and "Terra de Santa Cruz". – Centaurus Sep 5 '17 at 16:13
  • I was referring that Dragon's blood is from Africa, mainly Morocco (but also Canary Islands and Azores). I will correct my text. The Ilha do Brasil in the 1502 map wasn't referring to the modern country, but to the Island we now call Aruba. There are some places in American continent which are or were named "Brasil": the modern country, the island of Aruba, and an island in Venezuela's coast. – Seninha 7 mins ago – Seninha Sep 5 '17 at 17:09
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    I understand it Seninha, I was just drawing your attention to the fact that the island off Venezuelan coast was probably referred to as Brazil at a time when our country was still called "Terra de Santa Cruz". – Centaurus Sep 5 '17 at 18:02
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    Ah, ok. Yes, by this time, the Portuguese colony was not named Brasil, but some places where brazilwood were extracted received this name. I'd like to highlight that the brazilwood was known by the Europeans even before America was discovered. Such wood was provided by Asian traders, but then, Portugal and Spanish was able to explore it too. – Seninha Sep 5 '17 at 21:00
  • Thank you. I noticed that I had kept explaining the various applications the word had, but I forgot to answer its first written attestations. But @Jacinto did it greatly (especially citing Vasco da Gama's reffering to Indian sappanwood as "brasil", which is earlier than the discovery of Brazil). – Seninha Sep 9 '17 at 1:18
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It is unclear what the first usage of the original word was. But, the country of Brazil got its name from pau-brasil (or brazilwood in english). By the time the name was given, it was already normal for the common man to refer to the country as Brazil - which includes giving the name brazil to places, rivers and regions that had an abundance of brazilwood. More info in Name of Brazil in Wikipedia.

First Usages

From the same article, you can get a hint about the very first usages of the country's name:

From 1502 to 1512, the Portuguese claim on Brazil was leased by the crown to a Lisbon merchant consortium led by Fernão de Loronha for commercial exploitation. [...]

note: Fernão de Loronha has come to be called Fernando de Noronha in the 20th century Brazil.

It was during Loronha's tenure that the name began to transition to Terra do Brasil ("Land of Brazil") and its inhabitants to Brasileiros. Although some commentators have alleged that Loronha, as a New Christian (a converted Jew), might have been reluctant to refer to it after the Christian cross, the truth is probably more mundane. It was rather common for 15th- and 16th-century Portuguese to refer to distant lands by their commercial product rather than their proper name, e.g. Madeira island and the series of coasts of West Africa (Melegueta Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast), etc. Brazil simply followed that pattern. Brazilwood harvesting was doubtlessly the principal and often sole objective of European visitors to Brazil in the early part of the 16th century.

The first hint of the new name is found in the Cantino planisphere (1502), which draws extensively on the 1501 mapping expedition. The label Rio D Brasil ("River of Brazil") is given near Porto Seguro, just below the São Francisco River, almost certainly an indicator of a river where ample brazilwood could be found on its shores. That label is repeated on subsequent maps (e.g. Canerio map of 1505).

Etymology

Looking at the etymology for the word Brasil (Wiktionary), one finds: brasil (“ember-coloured”), from brasa (“embers”) + -il. Brasa is of unknown origin, but possibly connected to French braise which is of Germanic origin.

Braise (Wiktionary) comes from Middle French bresze, from Old French breze (“ember, burning coal, gleed”), perhaps from Gothic *𐌱𐍂𐌰𐍃𐌰 (*brasa, “glowing coal”), from Proto-Germanic *brasō (“gleed, crackling coal”), Proto-Indo-European *bʰres- (“to crack, break, burst”) and Danish dialectal brase (“to flambé, enflame”). Cognate with Swedish brasa (“to roast”), Icelandic brasa (“to harden by fire”). Akin to Norwegian/Swedish braseld (“sparkling fire”).

It is valid to note that, owing to orthographic changes in the Portuguese language in the mid 20th century, the written form "Brazil" for the country was changed to "Brasil". But this a matter for a whole other question (despite the edit in this question).

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  • My question is not about the name of the country but about the word Brasil, which appears as place names in old nautical charts. Charts drawn long before the South American continent and "Pau Brasil" were first seen. Your reference doesn't apply for the same reason, the question is not about the name of the country. – Centaurus Sep 4 '17 at 2:11
  • From your answer and @ANeves's I think my question has so been phrased that it does not convey what I meant it to. I'll edit it. – Centaurus Sep 4 '17 at 22:57
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    "The explanations are correct not only because it is the official story but also because it is true." I'm sorry but this is typical circular reasoning. – Centaurus Sep 5 '17 at 18:04
  • @Centaurus it would be circular reasoning if I had not explained afterwards the both reasons. But as the question was edited, I will answer properly. – José Sep 5 '17 at 20:15
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    José, I've made a few corrections in your answer. If you don't like it, you can always change it back to what it was. – Centaurus Sep 7 '17 at 15:10
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Please take note that "Rio do brazil" on Cantino's world map is a misnomer leading to nothing. The inscription says "Rio de lı pagãl" which stands for "Rio de li papagal". The geographical name comes from a letter by Mr Faitada a Venetian in Lisbon to the Signoria of Venice in June 1501. You can see three parrots, or, as we call them in Italian, pappagalli, on the map to mark the spot.

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