First attested in 1916, the noun Brownie designates either a member of the junior branch of the Girl Scouts in the United States, for girls aged between about six and eight, or a member of the junior branch of the Guide Association in Britain, for girls aged between about seven and ten—cf. also a U.S. Girl Scout word: ‘s’more’.
(According to the official website of the Guide Association, the Brownies were initially called Rosebuds.)
It is often said—for example in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989)—that the name Brownie alludes to the fact that the Brownies’ uniform is brown, but it is more likely that this colour alludes to the name itself, since this name refers in reality to brownie defined as follows in A New English Dictionary (1st edition – Oxford, 1888)—as the Oxford English Dictionary was known:
A benevolent spirit or goblin, of shaggy appearance, supposed to haunt old houses, especially farmhouses, in Scotland, and sometimes to perform useful household work while the family were asleep.
Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941), English army officer and founder of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, made this reference clear in the opening lines of the chapter Brownies of Scouting for Girls: Adapted from Girl Guiding (New York, 1918):
A Brownie is a household fairy who lives under and in the trees. This is the reason that the Brownies badge is an acorn.
There are many kinds of Brownies, such as Sprites, Elves, Gnomes, Fairies, Goblins, Pixies, Imps, Nymphs, Will-o’-the-wisps.
According to several sources¹, Robert Baden-Bowell borrowed the name of the junior branch of the Girl Guides from The Brownies², by Juliana Horatia Ewing (née Gatty – 1841-85), English author of children’s stories; the little heroes of the story in question, Tommy and Johnnie, begin as lazy boggarts and become helpful brownies.
¹ Among these sources are the Victorian Women Writers Project (Indiana University) and Scotland’s Early Literature for Children Initiative (University of Edinburgh).
² published in The Brownies and Other Tales (London and Boston, 1871), illustrations by George Cruikshank (1792-1878)
Incidentally, the popular theory that the noun brownie point is from the notion that Brownies earn points for good deeds is probably erroneous.
an old Brownie-badge, representing the benevolent elf
(the letters GG are for Girl Guides, whose symbol is the Trefoil.)
5 thoughts on “origin of ‘Brownie’ (Girl Scout or Girl Guide)”
Thank you. This information is very good and I used it to reference and appeal to Girl Guides Canada who are considering changing the name of The Brownies because a group has said they are ‘triggered’ by the term because they are brown people. Here is a copy of the email I sent along with this article.
Noranne Dickin, Calgary, Alberta Canada
“Good Afternoon Girl Guides of Canada”:
The Girl Guides are considering changing the name of Brownies because that name offends or ‘triggers’ some people. Please read my comments below.
Girl Guides, as an organization, has done nothing incorrect by using the name ‘Brownies’. Brownies is a term used to describe fairy-like creatures – – child-like – – fun. There is NOTHING wrong here.
Girl Guides Canada should be informing the public about the history of the name ‘Brownies’ that is used for little children. My daughter was so proud to be a Brownie in their cute brown uniforms.
You need to create well-informed messaging for communication about the term “Brownie” and where it came from – it’s a nice history.
You need to communicate who you are and why you have a group called Brownies.
You SHOULD NOT give in to, and, support an ill-informed group of people who have an agenda that serves to give them some kind of meaning and platform.
The platform they are creating serves no useful purpose — only if you allow it. Again, you must create the message and protect your reputation as you had no ill-intent.
Please, Girl Guides of Canada – – do the right thing and tell your own story. Stick to your values and ethics and don’t let these people define you differently. Please see the article attached, from word histories.net
I do hope to get a response to this email.
Thank you and good luck.”
Don’t let “these people” define you differently? What people? Do you know who are the ones complaining to get the name changed? Do you just not think that brown people exist or have no say in these matters, and it’s just white people battling it out over who can be more “real” or more “virtuous”? I guess we really are like fairies and elves then, talked about but never seen.
People with brown skin have themselves complained about this. They have embarrassed and made fun of for being part of a group called “Brownies”. It’s not like it’s white people who are just trying to “virtue signal” here.
Regardless of the history, “Brownie” today is a word that is having negative consequences on scouts/guides who have brown skin. It’s sad and unfortunate, but it’s apparently true, as that’s what’s been reported, and I’m glad that they’re trying to put the importance of these real actual people over the importance of an old name or fairies and elves.
All that said, it’s hard to believe in the first place that anyone ever referred to fairies and elves as “brownies”. That just seems so strange and random. I’d be interested to learn the etymology of how that became a name for them in the first place, as it certainly doesn’t seem to have caught on past the era it was applied as a name for these kids. Is it because of the colour of the tree barks they supposedly hid in? Doesn’t really sound very whimsical at all. The only other thing we call a “brownie” is an edible chocolaty treat. It’s the modern equivalent of calling a group of girls “The Cookies”, it just doesn’t seem right.
Etymological note: According to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, December 2022), the noun brownie, attested around 1522, and designating “a benevolent spirit or goblin, of shaggy appearance, supposed to haunt old houses, especially farmhouses, in Scotland, and sometimes to perform useful household work while the family were asleep”, is “from the noun brown, with somewhat of diminutive force: compare the Old Norse svartálfar or dark elves of the Edda. A ‘wee brown man’ often appears in Scottish ballads and fairy tales”.
Wow, thank you Pascal. I was not expecting a reply, and let alone so soon.
That’s interesting. I wonder why the wee man was described as brown, but if it was a noun and “Brown Man” is the name of a kind of person, whether it carries another meaning other than referring to a colour. It’s totally possible, as maybe it comes from a similarly pronounced word in another language, like Gaelic.
Some further information: The following definitions are from Dictionaries of the Scots Language/Dictionars o the Scots Leid:
It does seem, therefore, that the noun brownie originally referred to a brown sprite, but why this sprite was brown, I simply don’t have a scooby.
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