Q From Wilson Pinney in the USA: Although it is no longer being exhibited in our region’s multiplexes, an audience for the British film Brassed Off is growing among the video rental folks. The dictionaries closest to hand offer its definition as ‘disgruntled’ but neither is helpful with etymological information beyond stating simply ‘British slang’. What does the brass part of the slang expression derive from? Can you shed light on this obscure corner of our almost common tongue?
A Your dictionaries are correct in saying that it’s a slang expression for “fed up; disgruntled”. It seems to be services’ slang from the first part of World War Two, most probably from the Royal Navy. The phrase in itself is vulgar but not obscene, though the rhyme of brass with arse in standard British English no doubt added to its appeal. It may have been formed after the model of several other similar military expressions. An older one is arsed off, from arse off, a low slang term from the later part of the nineteenth century that meant “to leave quickly”. Another, from the 1930s this time, is browned off, which may refer to the accumulation of brown rust on worn-out metal, but is more likely to be linked with other words in brown that relate to sodomy. Yet a third is cheesed off, perhaps a euphemism for pissed off. Brassed off could come from somebody having had a telling off from a superior officer, since senior officers were commonly called “the brass”, and very senior ones “the top brass”, in reference to the amount of gilt on their uniforms. Eric Partridge, in his 1948 book A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, says it is connected to that job, often given as a punishment, of polishing the brasswork on board ships (frequently done with a product called Brasso). So to be brassed off could just mean that you have been doing some piece of mindless scut work and are thoroughly disgruntled as a result.