Adventures in Etymology – Bureau

In this Adventure we are investigating the fiery origins of the word bureau.

Bureau du château de Beaumesnil

A bureau [ˈbjʊɹ.əʊ/ˈbjʊɹ.oʊ] is:

  • An administrative unit of government
  • An organization or office for collecting or providing information or news.
  • A desk, usually with a cover and compartments (mainly UK)
  • A chest of drawers for clothes (mainly USA)

It comes from French bureau [by.ʁo] (desk, office, ticket office, office staff), from Old French burel (frieze [coarse woolen cloth], garment made of frieze) from Late Latin burra (a small cow with a red muzzle; a shaggy garment), from burrus (red, reddish-brown), from Ancient πυρρός [pyr̥.r̥ós] (flame-coloured, redheaded) from πῦρ [pŷːr] (fire, lighning, fever), from PIE *péh₂wr̥ (fire) [source].

How did we get from coarse fabric to a desk to an office? Well, back in the 14th century the French word bureau meant a carpet on which one did one’s accounts, probably made of coarse fabric. Later a table for doing accounts, then a place where you do your accounts, and by the 16th century it meant an establishment open to the public where a service of collective interest is undertaken [source].

The word burel (a coarse woolen cloth) also exists in English and was borrowed from Old French [source], and the old word borrel (a mean, ignorant or unlearned fellow) probably comes from the same roots [source].

The English prefix pyro- (fire, heat, fever), as in pyromancy (divination by fire), pyrometer (a thermometer designed to measure high temperatures) and pyroclast (solid matter ejected into the air by an active volcano) comes from the same PIE root [source], as do such words as fire, pyre and purge [source].

Here’s a video I made of this information:

Video made with Doodly [afflilate link].

I also write about words, etymology and other language-related topics on the Omniglot Blog, and I explore etymological connections between Celtic languages on the Celtiadur.

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One thought on “Adventures in Etymology – Bureau

  1. I see your US definition, “A chest of drawers for clothes (mainly USA)”. Personally, I have very occasionally heard the word “bureau” used for that, but I usually say, and usually hear, is a “dresser” which contains several “dresser drawers”.

    To my American ears, “bureau” just doesn’t sound the name of some furniture. Rather, it’s one of your first two definitions. The third (UK) definition *might* mean something to someone here, but the problem is, a “bureau” in that sense seems VERY old-fashioned. Not just the name, but the furniture itself. I would expect my grandfather to possibly have such a thing, some time in late 19th century. Not now. Pretty much nobody uses such things now. After all, they are a means of holding and shuffling papers. In the 21st century, what we need more is not a “bureau” but a computer workstation.

    A “bureau” is a relic of the past. They belong in a museum, not in my house.

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