As a quondam embassy brat I was amused by Katie Lange’s DoD News piece on the phrase “military brat” (more familiar to me as “army brat,” which is what I generally heard growing up in Tokyo). She writes:

It pertains to those children who grew up in military families. “Brats” wear the name like a badge of honor, often because of the moves, stressors and cultural experiences that make them more resilient than their civilian counterparts. But outside of the military, the word brat is often considered derogatory. So it made me wonder – where did the term “military brat” originate?

To find out, I reached out to the folks at National Defense University Libraries, who did some research for me. It turns out the origin of the term is still pretty unclear, but there are a lot of interesting theories behind it, and most of them originate in Britain.

The first “theory,” that “BRAT could be an acronym for British Regiment Attached Traveler,” is obviously absurd, but it demonstrates people’s ineradicable love for acronymic origin stories. The third, that it is a contraction for “barrack rat,” is just as silly but a little more inventive. In the middle, there is a passage of actual information:

Dr. Grace Clifton, a professor at Open University in the UK, has done research with the U.S. Army’s Dr. Becky Powell into the origins of the term. Clifton found reference to a song written in 1707 for a satirical play called “The Recruiting Officer” that described soldier life and that of their dependents. Back then, married soldiers were divided into two categories: the lucky few who were allowed to have their families live in the barracks and be taken care of by regimental funds, and those whose families had to live outside the barracks. The song referenced the latter as being “brats and wives.”

The lyrics may have been the first reference to brat in relation to military families. But it also may have referred to any children. So, that’s still a bit of a mystery.

I mean, no, it’s not a mystery at all: the brats of members of the military are by definition military brats. The actual mystery is the origin of the word brat itself. The OED, in an ancient (from 1888) entry, says: “Of uncertain origin: Wedgwood, E. Müller, and Skeat think it the same word as the brat n.¹ [“A cloth used as an over-garment, esp. of a coarse or makeshift character”], but evidence of the transition of sense has not been found.” (First cite ?a1513 W. Dunbar Flyting “Iersche brybour baird, wyle beggar with thy brattis.”) The AHD says “Possibly from brat, coarse garment, from Middle English, from Old English bratt, of Celtic origin.” And that’s all that can be said on the subject without resorting to flights of fancy. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    The semantic shift seems less extreme if the brats were beggar children. Because of several things (idleness at a comparatively lucrative begging spot, necessity of keeping belongings close, having to beg outdoors in bad or cold weather, limited access to washing (or medical!) materials and facilities), especially the settled beggar children tend to be “bundled” up. Or the children could have carried bundles if they were travelling beggars. I leave aside the speculation that some of the babbies were child-sized bundles of straw wrapped in coarse cloth.

  2. Michael Hendry says

    I have vague memories of being referred to as a Navy brat long ago, possibly by my parents, but still mostly think of it as a nasty name for a nasty child – a Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace.
    I’m still momentarily disconcerted when I read Wisconsinites like Ann Althouse writing about their love for boiled, roasted, or grilled brats. In most states, we call them bratwurst, thus evading any hint of cannibalism.

  3. That’s the OED’s brat⁵:

    U.S. regional (Midwest).

    A bratwurst sausage.

    1949 Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press 8 Sept. 33 (advt.) Fry Johnsonville brats and hamburgers.
    1979 Cincinnati Mag. June 13/2 There will be metts, brats, and other such sausages to eat at the festival.
    2007 Indianapolis Star 13 Aug. ʙ5/2 The shop will still cure meats and produce the most authentic brats and wursts in town.

    The OED doesn’t have an entry that would explain “metts,” but Google tells me it’s Mettwurst: “The Low German word mett, meaning ‘minced pork without bacon’, is derived from the Old Saxon word meti (meaning ‘food’), and is related to the English word ‘meat’.”

  4. The Shorter OED has an additional tentative etymology for brat: bratchet a Scottish noun dated to the late 16th century, meaning “A little brat, an infant.” This in turn is said to be originally a variant spelling for brachet or brach, a LME noun from French, “A kind of hound which hunts by scent. In later use gen. and always fem.: a bitch hound.” The French noun is derived (via Provençal brac) from Frankish, akin to OHG brakko, German Bracke.

  5. >In most states, we call them bratwurst, thus evading any hint of cannibalism.

    You may know this, but in case others don’t, they’re not homophones.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    My vague recollection from my long-ago years in Chicago was that they were homophonous for some Midwestern speakers but not for others. A book called “The Flavor of Wisconsin” insists that true WIsconsinites “know the correct way to pronounce _brat_ (open your mouth and say ‘ah’)” [i.e. with LOT/PALM], which is the sort of point you would assert only if there were a non-trivial number of less sophisticated folks who in practice pronounced it differently [i.e. with TRAP/BATH].

  7. I’ve never heard anyone use TRAP except as a joke, and I’m not even from Wisconsin. Illinois all my life. I’d assume that’s the sort of thing you’d say if your audience was folks from out east, inherently less sophisticated. But perhaps someone will phone in from Iowa or Michigan to prove me wrong.

  8. Once at a grilled bratwurst dinner with my family,
    my punk-loving friend Chuck started singing
    “Eat on the brat / Eat on the brat / Eat on the brat with some sau-er-kraut!” They’re usually just homographs, (for us Delawareans at least), but with a Joey Ramone accent it kinda works.

  9. 2:32 of the Ramones singing “Beat on the Brat”:

  10. this instantly brought to mind the fantastic (in memory; haven’t tried to confirm by watching it again) Disney Sunday Movie “B.R.A.T. Patrol” (1986), where the backronym is “Born, Raised, And Trapped”. it’s very much a tween-oriented, cleaned-up (with the military connection and Cold War-tinged plot to provide respectability) entry in the anti-authoritarian-teen-movie subgenre running from Over the Edge (1982) to Pump Up the Volume (1990).

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