OE. bræs 'generic bronze'. No etymology: "Of unknown origin: not found elsewhere... has been compared with Old Swedish brasa fire, brasa to flame, Danish brase to roast; but no connection has been traced" (OED). But MA suggests a possible Semitic loan, cf. Phoenician barzel, Syriac parzlā 'iron' (also possible source of Lat. ferrum 'iron'). Note Fris. bres 'copper' (MA) and MLG bras-penniuk 'large silver coin from Flanders' (LUB). Alloy of copper and zinc (brass in the modern sense of the word) was unknown in classical antiquity (CDB). "The Old English bræs was, usually at least, an alloy of copper and tin (= bronze); in much later times the alloy of copper and zinc came gradually into general use, and became the ordinary ‘brass’ of England; though in reference to ancient times, and esp. to the nations of antiquity, ‘brass’ still meant the older alloy. When works of Greek and Roman antiquity in ‘brass’ began to be critically examined, and their material discriminated, the Italian word for ‘brass’ (bronzo, bronze) came into use to distinguish this ‘ancient brass’ from the current alloy" (OED). Johnson 1755–73 explains the new word bronze as 'brass' (OED). OED
Robert Farren, PIE culture words collection, 2017
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