windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of? (66)…

besom

As daft as a brush

Another simile in the now familiar as x as y format, this is used to denote that someone is particularly stupid.

It is a rather odd phrase as brushes are inanimate objects and, therefore, have no sense. Surely there must be some interesting story behind its origin, I thought. Disappointingly, though, one of the earliest usages of the phrase appears as late as 1956, in William Morgan William’s The Sociology of an English Village : Gosforth, where he records, “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‘” Not exactly PC, the good folk of Gosforth back then.

However, our phrase seems to be a modern derivative of the phrase, as daft as a besom. A besom is a broom made of twigs tied to a central pole and its brush is round rather than flat. Often the twigs deployed were broom which explains the origin of that particular word. The association of a besom with being daft is illustrated in William Dickinson’s A glossary of the words and phrases of Cumberland, published in 1859, thus, “Daft, without sense. “Ey, as daft as a besom.

An earlier variant of the phrase appears in A glossary of North country words with their etymology, compiled by John and William Brockett in 1846, where in defining the adjective fond, they report, “Fond, silly, foolish. An old Northern word. ‘Fond-as-a-buzzom’, remarkably silly”. It may surprise us now but the original meaning of the word fond was foolish and probably its modern sense of having affection for may have spun out having a foolish regard for or being so besotted as to appear foolish.

So we have established a connection between stupidity and brooms which goes back at least 170 years but no explanation as to why a brush is associated with stupidity. There have been some fanciful suggestions that the brush was a fox’s tail and that the original adjective was soft which in some contexts has the connotation of being daft or mentally impaired. An alternative theory is that the brush is a chimney sweep who, presumably, were not known for their mental acuity. There is no printed evidence to support either theory.

We are left with the inevitable conclusion that the origin behind this phrase is simply that a brush or a besom is an inanimate object and, as such, has no sense – as simple as that.

I hope that you do not find this explanation a bit of a damp squib. This phrase is used to describe something that is anti-climactic and fails to meet expectations. In modern usage, a squib is a small firework, normally cylindrical in shape with a paper fuse and which creates a mild bang – in films it is used to replicate the sound of a bullet. However, in the 16th century it was also used to describe a satirical piece of writing which was short, sharp and generally sarcastic in nature. Either way, a squib which is wet will fail to make its mark, causing disappointment all round. The first printed usage, in a description of the politician, George Grote, published in 1820, clearly refers to a squib as a firework, ”Mr. Grote does not vote black white; or fiz and splutter, after the fashion of a damp squib”.

A common mistake committed by adherents of Richard Sheridan’s comic creation, Mrs Malaprop, from The Rivals is to confuse the squib with a squid. A squid, whilst alive, is always damp and so the phrase would make no sense at all.

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