Several theories attempt to explain the origin of the city's name. It may have come from the Slavic root beresta meaning "birch", or "bark". The name could also originate from the Slavic root berest meaning "elm". Or it could have come from the Lithuanian word brasta meaning "ford".
Once a center of Jewish scholarship, the city has the Yiddish name בריסק (Brisk), hence the term "Brisker" used to describe followers of the influential Soloveitchik family of rabbis. Traditionally, Belarusian-speakers called the city Берасце (Bieraście).
Brest became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1319. In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth formed in 1569 the town became known in Polish as Brześć, historically Brześć Litewski (literally: "Lithuanian Brest", in contradistinction to Brześć Kujawski). Brześć became part of the Russian Empire under the name Brest-Litovsk or Brest-Litovskii (Russian: Брест-Литовск, Брест-Литовский, literally "Lithuanian Brest") in the course of the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795. After World War I, and the rebirth of Poland in 1918, the government of the Second Polish Republic renamed the city as Brześć nad Bugiem ("Brest on the Bug") on March 20, 1923. After World War II the city became part of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic with the name simplified as Brest.
Brest's coat of arms, adopted on January 26, 1991, features an arrow pointed upwards and a bow (both silver) on a sky-blue shield. An alternative coat of arms has a red shield. Sigismund II Augustus, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, first granted Brest a coat of arms in 1554.