Tag Archives: brewing

Barmy, Beer, and Barmbrack

Hello,

Today’s the first of July and as I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, the summertime challenge from the people who bring us National Novel Writing Month every November. It’s a smaller event with friendly camp cabins (online support forums) instead of real-world writer meetings so I’m chatting with writers from America, Sweden, and elsewhere this month as I work away on the second half of my nonfiction book “Words The Vikings Gave Us”.

Camp Nano is a relaxing event for me as I don’t have the responsibility of running meetings and forums as I do during the November challenge. Plus, instead of targeting 50,000 words in a month I can set my own target (25,000 words this July).

One of the words I wrote about today at camp was barmy – a word the Vikings gave us. So I thought I’d share it here too.

{extract from “Words The Vikings Gave Us” by Grace Tierney, copyright 2019}

Barmy

To describe somebody as barmy in British English is to say they are foolish or crazy. Barmy is an adjective form of the noun barm – the froth on yeasty malt liquor, typically during the creation of beer or ale. The bubbly barm was also used to leaven bread and certain cakes. Both jobs would have been common on Viking-era farms and for many centuries thereafter, so it’s no surprise that barm comes from an Old Norse word barmr (froth).

Beer capping machine in the Smithwick’s Brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland

Barm entered Old English as beorma to mean either yeast or the head of a beer, again with that frothy meaning. It is likely the Vikings brought the word to English.

The Viking influence on English was particularly strong in Northern English because it was a centre for their settlements and population. Viking footprints on barm are easily spotted in barm cake. This cake, from North-Western England, leavened with barm, is a soft, rounded, flattish bread roll.

Another barm-related recipe is that for barmbrack (sometimes mis-named barnbrack) – the traditional Halloween cake across Ireland. The barmbrack (bairín breac in Irish which translates as speckled loaf) is a round fruit cake leavened with yeast or barm which is usually served sliced and buttered. Traditionally items were baked inside the dough and finding one in your slice was deemed to be a primitive form of fortune telling. The dried pea predicted you wouldn’t marry that year, the stick foretold an unhappy marriage, the rag suggested poverty, the coin claimed future wealth, and finding the ring assured you of a wedding before the next Halloween.

Wales has a similar fruit bread called bara brith, but without the surprise ingredients and fortune telling.

Perfect beer for a wordfool

 

   It wasn’t until the 1800s that barmy gained the additional meaning of foolish or mad from its connection to frothy, bubbly behaviour.

 

 

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)