A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (79)?…


As bold as brass

This is another phrase in the now familiar as x as y format and is used to describe someone who  is brazen, shameless or forward. What is interesting is that the comparator is not the metal alloy made of copper and zinc but may well have been one Brass Crosby, a London magistrate operating in the 1770s.

In those days, before Hansard and the unwatched Parliamentary TV channel, it was illegal to make public the proceedings of the House of Parliament. However, in contravention of the law one London printer produced a pamphlet revealing what had gone on in the chamber and immediately had his collar felt and was hauled in front of Brass Crosby. Crosby let him off only to find himself arrested for treason and jailed.

Such was the public outcry at the high-handed treatment meted out to Brass that the authorities released the popular hero and his brave stand against authority was commemorated in popular parlance through our phrase.

Some, however, have disputed that this tale really was the starting point for the phrase. The Oxford English Dictionary references a usage dating to 1789 in G Parker’s Life’s Painter, “He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass”, adding as an explanatory note, “an expression commonly used among the vulgar upon returning from an execution”.  That this usage occurred some fifteen years after Brass’ heroics is not fatal to the story as the phrase’s origin – it may prove that so noteworthy were Brass’ actions that they were quickly assimilated into popular argot.

More troublesome, though, is R North’s earlier usage of brass with a definitive article in 1734, “the author hath the brass to add..” where, clearly, brass is used in the sense of audacity or boldness. There are a around sixteen examples to be found in English literature between 1700 and 1770 i.e before Brass Crosby, where bold and brass are used in close proximity, albeit not in our familiar format.

I am not normally persuaded by popular stories but I think what we have here is that Crosby’s felicitous first name which was associated with boldness was seized on to make a memorable alliterative phrase. Crosby’s stance created the phrase but the component parts were already there.

His name is mud

This phrase is used to indicate someone is in disgrace or disfavour. The mud is a reference to one Dr Samuel Mudd, who was unwittingly implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You may recall that Lincoln’s demise interrupted proceedings at the Ford Theatre in Washington D.C on 14th April 1865. The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, escaped but broke his leg and when he considered he had reached safety, called on the medic who treated him.

When he heard of the assassination the next day, Mudd informed the authorities that he had seen Booth , was promptly arrested and convicted of conspiracy, sentenced to life imprisonment and was only released in 1869 through a pardon.

But the great American public never forgave him and his name has been immortalised in this phrase.

So now we know!


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