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pret·zel (prĕtsəl)
A soft or brittle glazed biscuit that is usually salted on the outside and baked in the form of a loose knot or stick.

[German Brezel, from Middle High German brēzel, prēzel, from Old High German brēzila, brezzitella, from Medieval Latin bracellus, alteration of Medieval Latin *brāchiātellus, diminutive of Latin bracchiātus, having branches like arms (in reference to the traditional form of a pretzel said to be made to look like arms folded in prayer), from bracchium, arm, from Greek brakhīōn, upper arm; see mregh-u- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

Word History: In the early 1800s, the pretzel was considered a stereotypically German food, and the first known occurrences of the word pretzel in English date from the first half of the 1800s and are often found in descriptions of the German diet. Pretzel comes from a German word that is now spelled Brezel in modern standard German. The English spelling pretzel with p probably reflects the pronunciation of Brezel in one of the dialects of southern Germany. In many of these dialects, the letters b and p are pronounced identically when they occur at the beginning of a word, and they have a sound that reminds English speakers of a p. In Germany, pretzels are traditionally associated with Lent and Easter, and the overlapping strands of dough in a pretzel are said to represent the arms of a person with hands folded in prayer. In fact, German Brezel is ultimately derived from the Latin word for "arm," bracchium. Brezel comes from the Medieval Latin word bracellus, which referred to some sort of baked item, presumably like a pretzel. This Medieval Latin word is thought to be a shortened version of another Medieval Latin word, *brāchiātellus, that does not happen to be attested in any written documents preserved from the Middle Ages. In Latin, *brāchiātellus would literally mean something like "little thing with arms." It is the diminutive of another Medieval Latin word braciātus that is actually attested in surviving Medieval Latin documents and refers to some sort of baked good eaten by monks on holidays. This Medieval Latin word developed from the Latin bracchiātus, meaning "having boughs or branches like arms," itself a derivative of Latin bracchium, "arm." In this way, the history of the word pretzel accords with the widespread tradition that a monk living in France or northern Italy invented the knotted shape of a pretzel in order to symbolize arms folded in prayer.
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The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices

    Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

    Indo-European Roots

    Semitic Roots

    The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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