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Chris -- 2011-03-08

#1 2008-08-15 21:52:20

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2030

at first brush << at first blush

A medieval use of “blush” with the meaning of “a glance” or “a brief look” still survives in modern English, but only in one place: the idiom “at first blush.” It is not surprising, then, that speakers have trouble retrieving the historic image behind the idiom. For many the phrase “at first blush” is a hidden acorn. To explain “at first blush” they may have recourse to the sense of “blush” that means “redden with embarrassment.” Or they may recall the use of “blush” in connection with the dawn light (“the red blush of dawn”) and think about the idiom “at first light.”

Alternately, they may try an eggcornical substitution. “At first brush” seems to be the most popular. A “ brush” can be an encounter (“a brush with death”), so the idiom is re-imaged as “the first time something happened.”

This is a popular eggcorn. There are hundreds of unique pages with the substitution of “at first brush” for “at first blush.” A few examples:

A Toronto blog: “This post provides more information on Bill C-52, which at first brush, appears very similar….” ( … t_risk.htm)

E-zine history article: “At first brush, Truman shared few similarities with his suave, patrician predecessor.” ()

Software specification: “On the surface this structure may seem overly complex and at first brush it is. ” (

One would think the brush/blush confusion would be more common among native speakers of Japanese and Korean, since they employ the /r/ ~ /l/ post-alveolar flap for both “br” and “bl.” I think I see some slight evidence of this on the sites with ‘at first brush,” but I’m not sure the incidence of these Asian sources is statistically significant.

Last edited by kem (2008-08-15 21:53:18)



#2 2008-08-16 01:29:15

From: California
Registered: 2005-10-25
Posts: 1665

Re: at first brush << at first blush

Nice—I’ve had another variant of “at first blush” on my list for a while, but “at first brush” never occurred to me.

“At first flush” shows up in some pretty high-profile places —I’ve seen it in academic writing a number of times—and gets over 600 hits on and over 9k raw ghits. (And not all of those are on sites about eco-friendly disposable diapers…). I suspect (but can’t prove) it started its career as an idiom blend between “at first blush” and “in the first flush of [manhood/strength/victory].” It’s hard to say just what the writers are thinking of—the first “dawning” of an idea may also be relevant here since we speak of the “first flush of day(light)” etc. And it’s interesting, too, that “flush” and “blush” are synonyms of each other when they refer to a reddening of the face. A thick tangle of similarities of sound and meaning.

And then there are a few hits for “in the first flesh of.”



#3 2008-08-16 02:32:35

From: Mexico
Registered: 2007-10-12
Posts: 1686

Re: at first brush << at first blush

I wonder if the idea of an artist’s brush might be involved in some degree for some of these eggcornishmen—at first brush-sketch X, but when you fill in the details Y.

Pat, I think you’re right about “at first flush”.

Re “the first flesh”, “flesh/flush” is a nice pairing anyway. My favorite was a linguist whose theory (by my lights) tended to believe its own generalizations at the expense of the data—he said “Now that we’ve laid out the framework, let’s proceed to flush out the details.” (Mark Twain’s converse recommendation strikes me as more sensible: First get your facts; then you can distort them at your leisure.)

*If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand,
we would be too simple-minded to understand it* .

(Possible Corollary: it is, and we are .)



#4 2008-08-16 02:33:28

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2030

Re: at first brush << at first blush

I wondered about “at first flush.” There is a longstanding idiom “in the first flush of X” It is noted this way in the OED as a meaning of “flush:”

“A rush of emotion or passion; elation or excitement arising from this, or from success, victory, etc. Phr. in the (first, full) flush.”

I think the “at” in “at first flush” is the crucial marker that the “in the first flush” idiom been blended with “at first blush,” with the omission of the article and the lack of a subjective genitive after “flush” as possible secondary markers (the existence of the idiom “in full flush” depreciates the value of the last two markers.)

“At first brush” seems like it must be an eggcorn. “At first flush” feels more like an idiom blend. But, as we have noted, the line is hard to draw. “Bl” and “fl” can easily be confused by the ear-an argument for eggcornicity. “Flush,” though, except as an action to make bathroom objectionables disappear, is not a very common word outside of its idiomatized usages. (Again, though, I waver-what about “the flush of victory?”)



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