You know trouble’s a-brewin’ when there’s a murmur, a rhubarb, a hubbub, a brutish babble… it all builds up to a big brouhaha. Oh, brouhaha, a word that in its triplet time and rough, smeary consonants has a bit of the sound of a hundred clog dancers in Doc Martens all stomping a threatening protest pattern.
But that’s because we know it’s another word for “hubbub”, “commotion”, “to-do”, et cetera. Taken in isolation, what words does it sound like? Think of bwa-ha-ha and mmuuu-ha-ha and similar: always the same gesture of the mouth opening in a moue and spreading like a shock wave from an airburst into a big, wide forest-burning face of laughter, and not laughter of joy but laughter of evil. Sort of like how the devil in a play, uncovering himself for the audience, might voice his anticipated triumph.
Which is, in fact, where we get this word. Brouhaha was, as it happens, a stereotypical laugh of the devil in medieval French religious plays. The sense shifted over the centuries, so that by 1890, when it was borrowed into English, it had the mob rumbling sense.
But where did French get it from? Well, in fact, there’s a minor brouhaha over that question. It has been suggested that it is imitative of Hebrew barukh habba, a phrase meaning “blessed be he who comes” or, more loosely, “welcome”, that would have been heard on some public occasions of Jewish observance. The existence of similar borrowings in other languages certainly makes this plausible (and we already know that Jews were often demonized in medieval and Renaissance times), but it is not a concluded fact; there is no concrete trail, just circumstance and resemblance, and there is also evidence of a French brou root relating to taunting. So, until further detail is unearthed, we are left with a big “maybe” – and, in any case, a usable word that has strayed somewhat from its origins… whatever they may ultimately have been. A bit of linguistic hocus-pocus, as it were (hocus-pocus, for its part, may have come from Latin hoc est corpus – from the Catholic mass).