We have a variety of words that mean “stupid or foolish person”
Ninnyhammer – First Known Use: 1592
Berk – The usage is dated to the 1930s. A shortened version of Berkeley Hunt, the hunt based at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. In Cockney rhyming slang, hunt is used as a rhyme for cunt, giving the word its original slang meaning. (Wiktionary)
Charlie – First Known Use: circa 1946
Nit – meaning a minor shortcoming
Origin: Middle English nite, from Old English hnitu; akin to Old High German hniz nit, Greek konid-, konis – First Known Use: before 12th century
Git – British for a foolish or worthless person; Origin variant of get, term of abuse; First Known Use: 1929
From phrases.org, we find these entries…
Daft as a Brush
Meaning: Very foolish.
On the face of it, brushes wouldn’t seem to be any more daft than anything else. As the source of the expression isn’t obvious, various suggestions have been put forward as to what form of brush is being referred to; for instance:
– The phrase originated as ‘as soft as a brush’ and the brush is the tail of a fox. This is plausible in that ‘soft’ is a northern English term for stupid, and foxes tails are in fact quite soft to the touch.
– The brushes in the expression are the boys that were employed in the 18th/19th centuries to climb inside chimneys to sweep them. The theory here, which is somewhat less plausible, is that the boys were made into idiots by being repeatedly dropped on their heads when being lowered down the chimneys.
Nevertheless, as we shall see, the ‘brush’ in this simile is neither of these; it is, as the dictionary would have it “A utensil consisting of a piece of wood or other suitable material, set with small tufts or bunches of bristles, hair, or the like, for sweeping or scrubbing dust and dirt from a surface”, that is – a brush.
In looking for early examples of ‘daft as a brush’ in print we find that it first starts appearing in the 1950s. An example is in William Morgan Williams’s The Sociology of an English Village: Gosforth, 1956:
The wives of two members of a kin-group locally thought to be eccentric and extremely unsociable were pointed out by several people as ‘gay queer’ and ‘daft as a brush’.
[Gosforth is in Cumbria, UK]
1956 seems late for this phrase. A scan of some north country references seems in order. ‘Daft as a brush’ it is in fact predated by an earlier variant ‘daft as a besom’. The earliest citation found is a listing in William Dickinson’s A glossary of the words and phrases of Cumberland, 1859:
Daft, without sense. “Ey, as daft as a besom.”
A ‘besom’ is of course a brush made from twigs and a corroboration that the phrase originated with the ‘besom’ rather than the ‘brush’ version comes in another glossary, from just a few years earlier and collected in the same area – John and William Brockett’s A glossary of North country words, with their etymology, 1846:
Fond, silly, foolish. An old Northern word. ‘Fond-as-a-buzzom’, remarkably silly.
The use of ‘fond’ to mean foolish predated our current usage, which is ‘to be fond of something or someone’. That present day meaning migrated from the earlier word, which in time came to mean ‘display a foolish affection for’. In Richard Rolle’s Psalter, 1339, the author refers to ‘fonnyd maydyns’ (foolish girls). The word appears in more contemporary language in John Lyly’s Euphues: the Anatomy of Wyt, 1578:
He that is young thinketh the old man fond.
So remember, if you are visiting the English northern counties and some old codger says that you are ‘as fond as a buzzom’, it isn’t exactly a compliment.
Get Down to Brass Tacks
Meaning: Engage with the basic facts or realities.
Origin: The figurative expression ‘getting down to brass tacks’ isn’t particularly old as phrases go. Its first appearance in print came from the US in January 1863, was in the Texas newspaper The Tri-Weekly Telegraph:
“When you come down to ‘brass tacks’ – if we may be allowed the expression – everybody is governed by selfishness.”
All of the other known early citations either originate in, or refer to, Texas. It is reasonable to assume that the phrase was coined there, in or about the 1860s.
Brass tacks are, of course, real as well as figurative items and two of the most commonly repeated supposed derivations refer to actual tacks. Firstly, there’s the use of brass-headed nails as fabric fixings in the furniture trade, chosen on account of their decorative appearance and imperviousness to rust. Such brass tacks were commonly used in Tudor furniture and long predate the use of the phrase, which would tend to argue against that usage as the origin – why wait hundreds of years and then coin the phrase from that source? The supporters of that idea say that, in order to re-upholster a chair, the upholsterer would need first to remove all the tacks and fabric coverings, thus getting down to the basic frame of the chair. While that is true, it hardly seems to match the meaning of the expression, as the tacks would be the first thing to be removed rather than the last.
The second explanation that relies on actual tacks comes from the haberdashery trade. Here the notion is that, in order to be more accurate than the rough-and-ready measuring of a yard of material by holding it out along an arm’s length, cloth was measured between brass tacks which were set into a shop’s counter. Such simple measuring devices were in use in the late 19th century, as is shown by this piece from Ernest Ingersoll’s story The Metropolis of the Rocky Mountains, 1880:
“I hurried over to Seabright’s. There was a little square counter, heaped with calicoes and other gear, except a small space clear for measuring, with the yards tacked off with brass tacks.”
Various other explanations relate to the tacks in boots, those that were put on chairs as a prank, the rivets on boats, etc., etc. None of these come equipped with any real evidence and are best left alone.
Of the supposed explanations that do not have literal allusions, we can rule out links with any form of ‘brass tax’. There have been taxes on brass at various times, but no one can find any connection with this phrase. ‘Getting down to brass tax’ appears to be just a misspelling. The expression is also often said to be an example of Cockney rhyming slang, meaning ‘facts’. In the strange world of Cockney argot, ‘tacks’ does indeed rhyme with ‘facts’ (facks), but that’s as far as it goes. Rhyming slang coinages from the 19th century are limited to the UK and Australia. The apparent US origin of the phrase discounts the rhyming slang origin.
We Are Not Amused
Meaning: A quotation, attributed to Queen Victoria.
Origin: This supposed quotation was attributed to Queen Victoria by courtier Caroline Holland in Notebooks of a Spinster Lady, 1919. Holland attests that Victoria made the remark at Windsor Castle: ‘There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. “We are not amused,” said the Queen when he had finished.’Holland doesn’t claim to have been present at the dinner and is good enough to describe the account as a “tale’, that is, her account has the same standing as “a man in the pub told me”.
Despite the fact that in almost all of the photographs and paintings of her, Victoria provides a particularly po-faced demeanour, she had the reputation of being in private a very fun loving and amusing companion, especially in her youth and before the crown began to weigh heavily on her. In public, it was another matter, as Victoria preferred to maintain what she saw as the dignity of her position by remaining sternly impassive. She did, of course, become considerably less fun-loving after the death of her husband and her persona in later life is well-documented as being dour and strait-laced.
As to whether she ever uttered the expression ‘we are not amused,’ there is little convincing evidence that she did so with the intention of conveying the serious intent that we now ascribe to the phrase, although in the 1976 biography Victoria Was Amused, Alan Hardy makes the claim (again without offering explicit evidence) that Victoria did sometimes utter the expression ironically.
The evidence to support the idea that Queen Victoria originated this expression ‘we are not amused’ lies somewhere between thin and nonexistent.
Rack Your Brains
Meaning: To rack one’s brains is to strain mentally to recall or to understand something.
Origin: The rack was a mediaeval torture device. The crude racks often tore the victim’s limbs from their bodies. It is not surprising that ‘rack’ was adopted as a verb meaning to cause pain and anguish. Shakespeare was one of many authors who used this; for example, from Twelfth Night, 1602: “How haue the houres rack’d, and tortur’d me, Since I haue lost thee?”
The term was called on whenever something or someone was under particular stress and all manner of things were said to be ‘racked’; for example, in the Prymmer or boke of priuate prayer nedeful to be vsed of al faythfull Christians, 1553 there’s a reference to the racking, that is, increasing, of land rent:
“They may not racke and stretche oute the rentes of their houses”
The first recorded use of this being specifically applied to brains is in William Beveridge’s Sermons, circa 1680:
“They rack their brains… they hazard their lives for it.”
The same idea was used by the composer William Byrd in 1583 when he wrote:
“Racke not thy wit to winne by wicked waies.”
Ne’er do well
Meaning: A worthless, good for nothing person.
Origin: The term ‘ne’er do well’ is of course a contraction of ‘never do well’. Ne’er has been used in that shortened form since the 13th century, notably in the North of England and in Scotland. ‘Ne’er do well’ itself originated in Scotland and an early citation of it in print is found in the Scottish poet and playwright Allan Ramsay’s A collection of Scots proverbs, 1737:
Some ha’e a hantla fauts [have many faults] , ye are only a ne’er-do-well.
A Legend in One’s Own Lifetime
Meaning: Literal meaning, that is, a living person of considerable fame.
Origin: The original use of this phrase was ‘a legend in her lifetime’, written of Florence Nightingale by Giles Lytton Strachey, in his well-known book Eminent Victorians, 1918:
The name of Florence Nightingale lives in the memory of the world by virtue of the lurid and heroic adventure of the Crimea. Had she died–as she nearly did–upon her return to England, her reputation would hardly have been different; her legend would have come down to us almost as we know it today–that gentle vision of female virtue which first took shape before the adoring eyes of the sick soldiers at Scutari.
She was a legend in her lifetime, and she knew it.
The ‘own’ is now almost always added to make ‘a legend in his/her own lifetime’.
The associated term ‘living legend’ derives from ‘a legend in one’s own lifetime’. This term sprang up in the USA in 1939 and immediately grabbed the imagination of writers here. In that year alone all of these people were described in print as living legends:
Jack Dempsey (boxer)
Cordell Hull (U.S. senator and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1945))
Diego Rivera (artist)
Fielding H. Yost (football coach)
The ‘lost’ Apaches of northern Mexico.
D. B. MacRae (journalist)
Strachey’s phrase has spawned imitations. ‘A legend in his own lunchtime’ is often used humorously about chefs or notorious drinkers (“Lunchtime O’Booze” was used by Private Eye magazine as a generic term for a habitually drunken journalist). Less affectionately, there’s also ‘a legend in his own imagination’, referring to those whose good opinions of themselves are not shared by others.