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‘Broad’ and ‘wide’ – a linguistic mystery

England cricketer Stuart Broad. Picture: PA/John Walton - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Broad and wide mean pretty much the same thing – they are very close to being synonyms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines broad as “extended in the direction measured from side to side; wide”; and wide is also defined as “having great extent from side to side”. Both broad and wide are also said by the OED to be the opposite of narrow. Typically, though, when two words with very similar meanings are available in a language, they end up being used in rather different ways.

Cricket fans may be surprised to learn that the surname Broad, shared by the England fast-bowler Stuart and his batsman father Chris, was originally a nickname applied to people of significant girth; while a wide in cricket, on the other hand, is a ball which is illegally bowled out of the batsman’s reach, with a run being awarded to the batting side in compensation.

For the linguist, the two words broad and wide are both a little bit mysterious. Broad corresponds to Scots braid, Dutch breed, German breit, and Norwegian breid; it is clearly, therefore, a word which we have inherited from our linguistic ancestor, Common Germanic.

But there are no obviously related words which correspond to broad in any other European language family, and we know little about the ultimate origin of the word. There is a theory that broad and the corresponding noun breadth are in some way related to spread, German spreizen, Dutch spreiden. But this doesn’t really help us very much because it is not easy to understand what might have happened to the initial s-; and in any case, the original source of the Common Germanic form of spread is not known either.

Similarly, the word wide is also Common Germanic in origin: the German is weit, the Dutch wijd, and the Danish vid. But once again, there do not seem to be any related forms in other European languages, and we do not know where the word originally came from.

The name of the region we call the Norfolk Broads shows a rather specialised usage of the term broad. The Broads are an area of rivers and shallow reedy lakes in the English county of Norfolk: the region is very well known as a destination for people enjoying boating and walking holidays. These lakes, as was only discovered in the 1950s, are actually medieval peat workings which were flooded as water levels rose. The network of waterways contains more than 60 Broads, 16 of which are open to legal navigation by holidaymakers, with one of these being located in the neighbouring county of Suffolk – hence the more pedantically accurate, if clumsier, alternative name: the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. The largest of the lakes is Hickling Broad, which at 1.4 square kilometres is rather bigger than Grasmere in the Lake District.

The origin of Broad as used to refer to these Norfolk waterways is no mystery. It is a Norfolk dialect form, which dates from at least the mid-17th century, signifying a place where one of the six main rivers of the region broadens out into more extensive lake-like waterways – so “broad waters”, as opposed to “narrow waters” or rivers. In 1651, the Norwich-based polymath Sir Thomas Browne wrote of “lakes and broades”.

Americans are often amused on first encountering the term ‘Norfolk Broads’ because of the American use of the slang term broad to mean ‘woman’. This seems to have become current in US English only at the beginning of the 20th century. But where did that usage come from? It has been suggested that it might be a reference to the fact that women on average have proportionally broader hips than men. And it has also been proposed that it may come from an American term abroadwife, meaning a ‘woman away from her husband’. But I think the honest truth is that we haven’t actually got the faintest idea – it is yet another linguistic mystery.