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When English speakers use the phrase “bear the brunt” of something, they are referring to withstanding the worst of a bad thing, or the full force of a negative impact. In this phrase, a literal element has been abstracted into something that can refer to a situation where social pressure or other intangibles are the “full forces” impacting the situation, and the impact on the individual or group is psychological or financial rather than physical. In other uses of the phrase, a more literal meaning applies.
Many attribute the origin of the phrase “bear the brunt” to forms of old English. Old English has much in common with the German language, and some word historians can identify the original meaning of the word “brunt.” Here, the word seems to be associated with the German word for burning, for example, where the modern English word “burnt” translates in German to verbrannt.
Some language historians offer more specific details on the original meaning of this phrase. Some point out that the Anglo-Saxon word brenning means “burning” in modern English. One explanation is that “the brunt” is the climactic or “hottest” part of a battle, and so to bear the brunt would be to suffer through the most intense point of a conflict.
Those who see the phrase this way point out that the idiomatic phrase “take the heat” functions in much the same way, and may have originated along with “bear the brunt.” As noted, the original phrase is used for either a physical or abstract force. For example someone might say “the house bore the brunt of the storm’s impact,” where the impact was physical and observable. Alternately, someone might say that a nonprofit group “bore the brunt” of some government policy, where the actual pressure and “bearing” of the force is fully intangible.
In addition to “take the heat,” which is more specifically used to indicate bearing liability for something, other synonyms can express “bear the brunt” in different ways. Some single word synonyms include “weather” and “withstand” where the single words act as verbs. A verb phrase such as “stand up to” can have a similar meaning to “bear the brunt,” although the main difference is that to “bear the brunt” of something identifies the subject as comparatively absorbing more of a force or impact than others.