What can you break?

In standard dialects of English we can break things which are hard or brittle, such as a window, a bone, a tooth, a stick, a (crisp, not soggy) piece of celery, a cookie, a cracker.

It is also allowed by the lexicon of English for us to speak of breaking some things which are tensile, such as rope, a string, a rubber band, or a bungee cord.

The English lexicon has a number of figures of speech in which we can “break” things which are neither brittle nor tensile. So, for example, each of the following are good English:

  1. She broke my heart.
  2. They broke the news.
  3. The horse broke into a gallop.
  4. He broke the record at the Olympics.
  5. He’s trying to break his nicotine addiction.
  6. He broke wind.
  7. He finally broke the silence.
  8. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  9. He broke his word.
  10. We broke camp on Saturday morning.
  11. He broke the law.
  12. He broke his fast.

The English lexicon does not allow us to break just anything we can think of. So, for instance, “break” is inappropriate to use in the following sentences:

  1. I broke the tree.
  2. I broke the grass.
  3. I broke the book.
  4. I broke life.
  5. I broke school.
  6. I broke the apple.
  7. I broke my pants.
  8. I broke the day.
  9. I broke liberty.

In the church my wife and I attend we have communion (the Lord’s Supper) on the first Sunday of the month. This last Sunday, as the officiating minister spoke of “breaking bread,” I wondered if the lexicon of the majority of native speakers of English permits them to say and allows them to understand

Today we will break bread.

Is “break bread” limited to the lexicon of church (Bible) English? Or do you think it is an expression understood by most English speakers today, regardless of whether they are familiar with church English? If it is not, what are the implications for a translation team that wishes their translation to communicate accurately and clearly to the most number of English speakers?

7 thoughts on “What can you break?

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Perhaps part of the issue is what the bread is like! If you think of bread as something soft and soggy, which comes ready sliced in plastic bags, then it does seem a bit odd to break it. But when it comes in hard crusty loaves then it can be broken. Indeed when I buy a baguette or French stick I usually manage to break it before I get it home. Middle Eastern bread is hard (even when it is not unleavened, but the bread Jesus broke at Passover probably was), and it is still the custom in some places to break or tear it into pieces rather than cut it.

    Of course the biblical expression “break bread”, at least as used in Acts, is really an idiom for sharing a meal together. But the words are used more literally in 1 Corinthians 11:24 etc.

  2. codepoke says:

    Anyone who knows how to “break” an actual “fast” instead of just eating breakfast, will be familiar enough with breaking bread. (re: your legit example #12 above). When I think of breaking bread outside the context of a religious observance, I tend to think of a collegial gathering at a French cafe for a pleasant reunion or some such. Wiktionary seems to agree: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/break_bread

    It almost seems to me like maybe English is dragging Biblish on this one. Biblish gave English the idea, but English ran down a casual road with it. I’d imagine speakers of Biblish as a second language probably hear “break bread” in a more casual way than our forebearers.

  3. CD-Host says:

    Oh heck yeah this is used, but its usage may be regional. In the NE

    break bread literally is to tear bread for sharing. So you would break an italian roll but you couldn’t break sliced bread. Figuratively it means to share food together to be social or make friends and that’s how the biblical meaning is understood. As far as I can tell the meaning is perfectly preserved secularly.

  4. J. K. Gayle says:

    W/ respect to etymology and perhaps apart from the bible or biblish, “bread” seems related once upon a time to “break” or “broken bits.” Here’s from the OED:

    “Before 1200 bread had quite displaced hláf as the name of the substance, leaving to the latter the sense ‘loaf’ which it has since retained. It thus appears that a word originally meaning ‘piece, bit, frustum’, has passed through the senses of ‘piece of bread’, ‘broken bread’, into that of ‘bread’ as a substance; while at the same time the original word for ‘bread, loaf, panis’ has been restricted to the undivided article as shaped and baked, the ‘loaf’. The Lowland Scotch and north. dial. use of piece illustrates anew the first step in this transition, for it is the regular word for a piece of bread, as in ‘give the bairn a piece’, ‘a beggar asking a piece’, a ‘piece-poke’, a ‘gie’s-a-piece’ i.e. a beggar.
    So also in Slovenish, ‘kruh, “bread” is literally “a piece, something broken off”’ (Miklosich, Etym. Wbch. Slav. Spr. 143).
    With brôd, bréad, Prof. Sievers connects the Ger. brosame crumb, in OHG. brôsma, OS. brôsmo:{em}OTeut. braudsmon-, the sense of which confirms the original meaning of *braudoz-, and points to some root having the sense of ‘break’.”

  5. Qohelet says:

    In my neck of the woods, I’ve never heard people use “breaking bread” except in religious contexts, or when the speaker is trying to evoke, playfully or seriously, a religious response. Heck, most would probably not even recognize the biblical allusion and just think the speaker is using bad English.

  6. Michael Nicholls says:

    Good discussion, because I doubt most have ever questioned ‘break bread’, including me. I was sitting there trying to think of what I would say with ‘normal’ English in a ‘normal’ context, like sitting in a restaurant with my wife or something.

    I probably would actually say, “Can you break me off some bread” or “tear me off a piece”, so it doesn’t sound totally biblish to my ears. Although, I couldn’t say the words together as ‘break bread’ without my churched ears hearing the biblical reference: “Darling, did you already break bread?” That last sentence would sound strange.

    The other thing is that in English I think ‘bread’ would usually be definite, so except in religious contexts we wouldn’t say “break bread”, but probably “break your bread” or “break the bread”.

    In normal, non-religious English contexts, ‘breaking bread’ wouldn’t be used as a synecdoche for a meal. But I don’t think it’s inappropriate as a translation for the Lord’s Supper.

  7. Dru says:

    I suspect that ‘break bread’ has acquired a religious meaning and has long belonged in the religious register. However, I would also say though that it is now religious idiom rather than Biblish.

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