Danish word of the day: Brian

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Danish word of the day: Brian

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash and Nicolas Raymond/FlickR

The epithet ‘Brian’ in Danish can be an insulting remark but also a badge of honour.


What is ‘Brian’? 

Just like in English, Brian is a name. It means “high” or “noble” and has its roots in Ireland, coming from the Old Celtic word Brixs, which means “hill” or “high”. It may also be linked to the Old Irish word briíg, meaning “might” or “power”.

In Danish, it’s pronounced with a slightly rolling ‘r’ and the ‘i’ is more like the ‘ee’ in ‘week’: Bree-an.

Famous Danish Brians include retired professional footballer Brian Laudrup, former politician Brian Mikkelsen, now CEO of the Danish Chamber of Commerce, and head chef Brian Mark Hansen of Michelin-starred restaurant Søllerød Kro.

It’s fair to say the name has declined in popularity in Denmark in recent decades. While 1985 saw 325 Danish babies called Brian according to Statistics Denmark, that had fallen to almost nothing by the end of the nineties. There were zero new Brians in Denmark in 2019 and two newborns were given the name last year.


Why do I need to know Brian?

The term en Brian (“a Brian”) emerged around the 1990s, peaking in popularity in the 2000s, as a word used to describe someone with an intense interest in cars, particularly fast ones.

Usually, the connotations of this were negative: a Brian is not thought of as someone with a high cultural background or refined tastes. In some contexts – such as in car enthusiast circles – it can be used as a status symbol, however.

You might hear someone condescendingly say hold kæft en Brian (“damn, what a Brian”) when a highly modified Opel Corsa roars past on a provincial high street.

While this is clearly meant as an insult, in other areas it’s taken less seriously. The 2016 song Det’ Brian (“That’s Brian”) both poked fun at and paid tribute to the stereotype in equal measure, by pointing out other tropes of the Brian personality like eating Hawaiian pizza and “not understanding irony” and calling them helt Brian (“totally Brian”).

See for yourself in the video below, which contains adult references.

While there’s no universal equivalent to Brian in English, an obvious comparison is with the British word "chav" which is often used to describe someone who behaves in a coarse and uneducated manner and whose clothing choice of brightly-coloured tracksuits makes them easily identifiable. While the dress sense might be similar, it’s not accurate to draw equivalence between the two words, given the more pejorative use of the British term and that they represent different subcultures.

In 2012, the newspaper Dagbladet Information wrote that “for a name to end up becoming low-class, it must be noticeable, new and different and not least very popular for a period”.

With that in mind, the newspaper posited Oliver and Emma – which have repeatedly topped Danish statistics for the most popular baby names in recent years – will be the Brians of the future.


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