I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in Birmingham, England’s second city. The denizens have a a very distinctive accent, characterised by the flattening of vowels. There is a rather patronising joke, which I won’t repeat, that centres round the mistaking of a cup of tea for a kipper tie. A study, published in 2015, rather rudely suggested that if you had a Brummie accent, you would be best advised to keep quiet. The respondents rated it as the worst regional accent and that the flat vowels were suggestive of low intelligence.
Be that is it may, Brummie is an abbreviation of Brummagem which, in turn, was a variant for Birmingham. In the late 17th century, Birmingham was little more than a village but it came to national prominence and, dare I say it, notoriety because it was the centre for an extremely effective money counterfeiting operation. Guy Miege observed in his The New State of England, published in 1691, that Birmingham was “particularly noted a few years ago for the counterfeit groats made here, and from hence dispersed over all over the Kingdom.”
Soon Birmingham and its variant, Brummagem, became synonymous with forgeries and inauthentic goods. The industrial revolution saw a transformation in Birmingham’s size and fortunes, although the soot and noise that followed mass manufacturing at the time soon made its mark. Not for nothing was the area known as the Black Country. The city embraced canals and to this day has nine more miles of waterway, mostly all navigable, than that illustrious city more noted for its watery streets, Venice.
In 1862 George Borrow, in his tome Wild Wales, was inspired to call Birmingham “the great workshop of England” and it was certainly a hive of industry. But all the energy was not necessarily directed towards quality. Indeed, a sizeable part of its industrial output consisted of cheap plated goods, such as trinkets and gilt jewellery. The consequence was that the term brummagem once more became associated with things that were not all that they seemed, a bit common and tawdry.
Rees Howell Gronow’s rather grandiloquently entitled book, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, formerly of the Grenadier Guards and MP for Stafford, being Anecdotes of the Camp, the Court, and the Clubs, at the close of the last War with France, related by himself, published in 1862, illustrates the point; “The equipages were generally much more gorgeous than at a later period, when democracy invaded the parks, and introduced what may be termed a ‘brummagem society,’ with shabby-genteel carriages and servants.”
The idea seems to have been transported to Australia – perhaps some of the groat counterfeiters ended up there – and Brummy is slang used to denote something which has been poorly manufactured or is flashy and not what it seems. And back home a Brummagem screwdriver is a hammer, perhaps immortalising the impression that the city’s workforce is cack-handed and not altogether skilled.
These days these connotations seem to have disappeared and Brummie and, to a lesser extent, are affectionate terms for the inhabitants of the city. The only fault the uncharitable find is with the accent.