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A conversation between two Scots:

— What do you do for a living?
— I'm on the brew.

Assuming that I have the phrase right, what exactly does "on the brew" mean here? Based on the context, I expect that it has something to do with "being unemployed". Where did the term originate and where exactly is it used and understood?

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I wonder if someone working at a brewery could use that term... – SF. Nov 22 '12 at 9:33
up vote 25 down vote accepted

The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang (2007) says:

burroo; brew; buro noun an unemployment exchange; the Department of Social Security. Form a Glasgow pronunciation of 'bureau' as in 'Employment Bureau. UK, 1937

On the brew means being unemployed or receiving unemployment benefits, and is similar to on the dole.

The oldest I found in Google Books for the exact phrase on the brew is in the New York Magazine (Vol. 2, No. 11) of 17 Mar 1969, in an interview with New York immigrant James Toner from Belfast, Northern Ireland:

"What do the Catholics do for work?"

"Go on the brew. You know the stayet. The Relief. Then they hang around the bars and the bookie shops. There's nothin' else they can do."

I've never heard it before, but I've never lived in Scotland. It is still used by people in the Glasgow area. Looking for current usage, I searched Twitter and found this from someone in Glasgow:

some c*ltic fans on this clearly should have been lawyers insted of sittin on the brew shut up and accept 54 titles and still goin strong

And this from someone in Cumnock (39 miles from Glasgow):

Might be my last week of work need a new job so am no back on the brew #badtimes

And finally, this from someone in Wishaw (15 miles from Glasgow):

Its a nightmare knowing that your monthly wage is going to be less than what a person on the brew gets in 2 weeks. This nation is backwards!

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I would think it's a pretty dated usage now - in Scotland the offices were and may still be referred to as the 'brew' - from Unemployment Assistance Bureau in the 1930s. Unlike US usage, the actual word bureau isn't normally used in reference to government departments in the UK. – FumbleFingers Nov 21 '12 at 17:18
@FumbleFingers That's interesting and useful. Will the expression not be understood outside Scotland? – coleopterist Nov 21 '12 at 17:56
When I, from the US, first saw this expression in this question, and given its spelling here, what leapt to mind was, yes, he's unemployed, and so unhappy because of it that he's getting drunk on beer every day. So I certainly did not understand it. – Jim Nov 21 '12 at 18:33
@coleopterist: I'd say unless the context already makes it obvious, you're not likely to be understood in Scotland either. If you want a "colourful" alternative, you'd be better off saying on the sausage (roll=Dole). That's claimed to be "Cockney" rhyming slang, but I've certainly heard it in Newcastle, and I don't think it's particularly Southern English. – FumbleFingers Nov 21 '12 at 19:11
I've never heard it before but I've never lived in Scotland. On the dole will be most understood in the UK. Looking for current usage, I searched Twitter and found this from someone in Glasgow: "some c*ltic fans on this clearly should have been lawyers insted of sittin on the brew shut up and accept 54 titles and still goin strong" and this from someone in Cumnock (39 miles from Glasgow): "Might be my last week of work need a new job so am no back on the brew #badtimes" – Hugo Nov 21 '12 at 21:27

While I don't have the origin, when I lived in Glasgow for a few months people would use "the brew" synonymously for "the dole". So it's not just unemployed, but on government assistance. Here is an urban dictionary link for it.

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Isn't it a mispronunciation of 'bureau'? – Barrie England Nov 21 '12 at 16:31
@BarrieEngland No, it's more or less just your standard Glaswegian pronunciation. There's a lot of Scots influence. – jozzas Nov 22 '12 at 3:20
I am with Barrie on this, it is a corruption of the word Bureau - that is, the bureau of unemployment. Hence on the dole = on the brew. I lived (stayed) in Glasgow for three years in the early 80s and this is common parlance – user57382 Nov 14 '13 at 16:28

Just for the record.

There is a sketch on Limmy's Show, aired on BBC Two Scotland, that features the tragicomical adventures of a marijuana user named Dee Dee. In the opening scene of an episode titled "Yoker" (district of Glasgow) he says:

"...heading to the brew. Heading to get my giro."

Urban Dictionary's definition of "giro" seems to be:

"Unemployment cheque, offered by the British Government"

The transcript of the same episode that describes the scene, refers to the brew as "The job centre". Later, when Dee Dee is on a bus he says:

"i am whizzing by the brew"

and looks out of the window, confirming that the "brew" is a place.

So perhaps the "brew" is the governmental establishment (bureau) where the unemployed can get a welfare cheque or "giro".

Source 1: Limmy's Show: Dee Dee - Yoker

Source 2: Script

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According to the BBC TV series The Seven Ages of Britain, in the 13th century, if you turned up at the church asking for the dole you would be given a brew (ale) and bit of bread. This points to the expression meaning being given a hand-out.

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It's odd, isn't it, that there are no recorded instances of "on the brew" in the sense of "on the dole" appear until the twentieth century (as Hugo's answer reports) if the phrase originated in the thirteenth century? – Sven Yargs Jan 16 at 22:30
@Sven Yargs There is much the same problem with "A little birdie told me" in which we jump from Ecclesiastes to 1833, with maybe a contribution from the Norse. english.stackexchange.com/questions/44594/… – ab2 Jan 17 at 2:07


If you look at 02:15 in this video you will hear the phrase being used. The comedian and a fair section of the audience immediately understood the phrase so it seems to be very current. It is also interesting that the guy using the phrase is from Northern Ireland and the comedian and audience are from Scotland.

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