“Brassed off”

“So who should be most brassed off by this show?”–Jason Farago, New York Times, June 1, 2023, in reference to “It’s Pablo-Matic,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which he did not like.

When I came to the phrase I’ve put in italics, it sounded like a Britishism, and it is. Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines it as “irritated, fed up, annoyed,” and has two 1940 citations, one from a book called A. A. S. F. (Advanced Air Striking Force, by Charles Gardner: “Cobber said he was ‘brassed-off,’ especially after he had got half-way home once, only to be called back to hand over his flight and teach two new-comers the way around.” Neither Green’s nor the OED has anything to say about etymology, but it would appear to be a combination of the verb “brass off,” meaning to complain, which is seen in British service slang as early as 1925 and “browned off,” meaning annoyed, which popped up no later than 1931.

Observers at the time had some fun describing the differences among those two phrases and another new one, “cheesed off.” A 1943 Time magazine article on RAF slang reported: “Among thousands of Americans, ‘browned off’ already means fed up. (‘Brassed off’ means very fed up and ‘cheesed off’ is utterly disgusted.)”

And a 1943 book called Women at War had these index entries:

“Brassed Off. See Browned Off.

“Browned Off. See Cheesed Off.

“Cheesed Off. See Brassed Off.”

In Britain, “brassed off” got pretty popular pretty fast. A short story by Herbert Bates which was published in a 1942 book has this passage:

He spent most of the rest of his life being brassed off.

“Good morning , Dibden, ” you would say. “How goes it?”

“Pretty much brassed off, old boy.”

“Oh, what’s wrong?”

“Just brassed off, that’s all. Just brassed off.”

In Britain, the phrase fell off in popularity after the War, but started picking up again in the 1980s, as this Ngram Viewer chart shows:

In 2004, the BBC ran a TV series called Brassed Off Britain, which endeavored to identify the things the country found most annoying. (Junk mail “won,” followed closely by banks and call centres.)

But the phrase has never taken hold in America. Until the line from Jason Farago quoted above, it had never been used in the New York Times by an American writer or source, except in reference to Brassed Off, described by the Times as “a funny and poignant [1997] film set in a bleak Yorkshire mining town.” Similarly, it does not show up at all in the Corpus of American Historical English or from any American sources in News on the Web (NOW), a corpus of more than 17 billion words published since 2010.

So well done, Jason Farago! You have perpetrated a true One-Off Britishism.


Faithful correspondent Nanette Tobin alerted me to a line which appeared in a New York Times Book Review column by romance reviewer Olivia Waite on Sunday, April 10. The book under discussion is a novel in which characters are “contestants on a high-concept reality show, where for a wodge of cash they have to convince their families that they’re getting married in a matter of weeks.”

Nanette wasn’t familiar with “wodge” but thought it sounded British; I had the same reaction. We were both right. The OED identifies it as originally a Midlands (the first citation is from 1847) but now broadly British colloquial term meaning “A bulky mass; a chunk or lump; a wad of paper, banknotes, etc. Hence also: a huge amount, a lot.” All the citations are British with the interesting exception of the American poet Ezra Pound, who wrote in a 1913 letter “I don’t want a great wadge of prose, but about double what we have at present.” (“Wadge” was originally a common alternate spelling.) The dictionary does not mention that Wodge Wodge Boodley Oodle Poo was considered as a title for the television show that eventually became Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Looking up “wodge” in the New York Times archives, I find that, until now, every use of it had been by a British person or, in one case, an American who had spent more than half his life in England. (Charles Marowitz.) That led me to wonder whether Waite is British. I found her on Twitter (@O_Waite) and asked her. Her reply:

“Not British, just watched too much Blackadder! And ‘wodge’ as a sound has the heft and awkwardness of a fat roll of bills, so it stuck with me.”


It’s a rare day that I have a chance for cross-promotion, but today is such a day. My other blog is called Movies in Other Movies, and each post is about a scene in a movie or TV show in which the characters are watching a movie or TV show. There are a surprisingly high number of such scenes; I’ve been doing the blog for two and half years and new examples keep coming up.

The latest post is about Charlie Chaplin’s 1957 film A King in New York. Here are two notable facts about the movie:

  • It’s set in New York (as the title suggests) and much of it is a satire on current American culture.
  • Chaplin had been out of the United States in a semi-voluntary exile since 1952, and shot the film in his native England.

At one point, Chaplin’s character — a king who has been kicked out of his country by a revolution — goes to see a movie, and before we see him watching three coming attractions (the subject of my blog post), he witnesses the tail-end of a rock and roll show.

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Behind him, on the theater doors, you can clearly see the work “STALLS.” Now, “Stalls” is the British term for what Americans would call the Orchestra. (I have never encountered “Stalls” here.) The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) offers conflicting information on where this scene was shot, either the Odeon Cinema or the Warner Theatre, both on Leicester Square in London. But whichever it was, Chaplin and his crew neglected to erase a telltale word.



The current issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article about the novelist Dan Mallory, who under the pen name “A.J. Finn” wrote a best-selling thriller, The Woman in the Window. The first line of the article is “Dan Mallory, a book editor turned novelist, is tall, good-looking, and clever,” and the use of the “clever” (instead of the more common Americanism “smart”) is a clue that the New Yorker writer, Ian Parker, is English.

But that is neither here nor there. What’s interesting for the purpose of this blog is a paragraph where Parker describes some affectations of Mallory, who is American-born but partly educated at Oxford:

Whereas in London Mallory had sometimes seemed like a British satire of American bluster, in New York he came off as British. He spoke with an English accent and said “brilliant,” “bloody,” and “Where’s the loo?”—as one colleague put it, he was “a grown man walking around with a fake accent that everyone knows is fake.” The habit lasted for years, and one can find a postman, not a mailman, in “The Woman in the Window.”

Hmm, the British use “post” as both noun and verb while Americans say “mail,” but I hadn’t thought of “postman” as a particularly British term. In fact, the first thing that comes to mine is James M. Cain’s quintessentially American 1934 noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. And, as Dan Geringer reminds me, the Marvelletes’ 1961 Motown hit was “Please Mr. Postman.”

Google Ngram Viewer, which charts words’ frequency in the Google Books database, suggests while “postman” is indeed (much) more popular than “mailman” in Britain, “postman” is also more popular than “mailman” in America (at least through 2000, the last year for which the application has reliable data).

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The New York Times archives tell a similar story. Since 1950, the paper has used “postman” 1,966 times, and “mailman” 2.203 times. (There’s a bit more of a gap than those figures suggest, since “Postman” at least occasionally appears as a surname.)

However, Brigham Young University’s 1.9 billion-word Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which offers a snapshot of the use of the language in 2013-2014, suggests that “postman” has recently gotten less common in the U.S. Here’s its chart showing relative use of the word in the U.S., Canada, and Britain.

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So I think we can conclude: in addition to his other sins, Dan Mallory is guilty of pretentiousness.