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Brass bands were being discussed today which naturally led to someone claiming to be brassed off about something, meaning disgruntled or annoyed. Does anyone know the origin of this expression? Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words suggests the phrase may have arisen from the Royal Navy's use of cleaning brasswork as a punishment, but that doesn't seem altogether convincing.

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This NGram suggests brassed off came later than brass monkey, as used in the expression cold enough to freeze the balls/nose off a brass monkey. I know some of the earlier usages for brass monkey here don't actually have that figurative meaning, but plenty do.

In light of that, I would simply say that "brassed off" actually derives from the earlier expression. If you've been kept hanging about in the cold, that's a typical situation where you'd be "brassed off".

Huge numbers of slang expressions are assigned naval/military origins, and I suppose it's always possible sailors were more in the habit of using that colourful metaphor for biting cold, but I doubt it's got anything to do with actual specific things made of brass on ships or similar.

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The OED reckons it came from "Service slang", and cites 'browned off' as a comparison. The earliest use there is 1941; taken together with the Ngram, this leads me to believe it arose suddenly and untraceably, as slang does, among the troops (probably the RAF, who were very inventive in such matters), and proved so useful it spread everywhere.

  • The OED calls a lot of things "service/naval slang" even when they're not exactly sure of precise origins. Young men account for a huge proportion of all slang, and through the 40s many of them were conscripts, so it's hardly surprising the OED would say that in this case, even though in many ways they weren't properly "service personnel" in the normal sense. But even if it was, say, an airman who coined this particular variant, I still think that would not have been possible without the antecedent "brass monkeys". – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '11 at 21:21
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Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961) has this roundabout explanation for the origin of the phrase:

brass off, v.i. To grumble : military : C. 20. F[raser] & Gibbons[, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases (1925)]. Perhaps ex part brass-rags.

And here's Partridge's entry for part brass-rags:

part brass-rags. To quarrel : naval (from ca. 1890) > by 1900 military. Bowen[, Sea Slang (1929)], 'From the bluejacket's habit of sharing brass cleaning rags with his particular friend'.

It appears from these references that brass off was in use by the 1920s. The same meaning of brass off appears in Eric Partridge, [Slang To-day and Yesterday] (1935).

The "Supplement" section in Partridge's Dictionary of Slang, fifth edition, which collects all of the addenda to the first edition (of 1937), runs to almost 400 pages. It contains the following additional entries for brass off and brassed off:

brass off.—2. To reprimand severely: Services: since about 1939. H[unt] & P[ringle, Service Slang (1943)].

...

brassed off. Disgruntled, fed up: Services, orig. (?): Royal Naval since ca. 1927; general since ca. 1939. ,,, Sometimes a synonym for browned off; sometimes regarded as a shade milder.

However, John Ayto & John Simpson, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) have a more conservative estimate of the date of origin of brassed off:

brassed off [adjective orig services'] Fed up. 1941– P. Brennan et al. Very tired and brassed off, we bundled our kit on our shoulders (1943).

A Google Books search for the various relevant phrases produces some interesting and fairly early results. From Mary Gaunt, Moving Finger (1895):

"You boy, trim that lamp," said Harper angrily. "Look here, my lad, you just keep your tongue lashed amidships, and don't go gassing about things that don't concern you in the least, or you and I'll part brass rags."

And from George Goodenough, The Handy Man Afloat & Ashore (1901):

A "monkey's fist" is anything that puzzles us, of which we can't make out the meaning or reason. Chums are often called raggies, from the fact that they generally establish a partnership in the brass rags used for polishing stanchions, &c., on deck. To part brass rags signifies a dissolution of partnership and friendly relations.

From Charles Gardner, First Blood for the R.A.F.: The Valorous Story of the Advanced Air Striking Force in France (1940) [combined snippets]:

My last two nights in Paris I had a good time. Noel and I met Cobber—up for a day's leave to see the 73 Squadron doctor off to England. 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. If ever anyone deserved a rest that boy does.

This use of brassed off certainly appears to mean "fed up" in the sense of being at one's limit to tolerate (without any sense of boredom). Two other sources source from 1941 have interpretations of their own. From John Hammerton, ABC of the RAF: Handbook for All Branches of the Air Force (1941) sees brassed off as being not merely a related term to browned off, but a diminutive of it.

Brassed off Diminutive of "browned off."

...

Browned off To be "fed up."

From Bernard De Voto, Saturday Review (1941) [snippet view]:

Brassed Off. To be very much fed up with boredom. (See also Browned off; Completely cheesed.)

Browned off. To be fed up with boredom.

...

Completely cheesed. Pretty much fed up with it all.

So whereas Hammerton sees brassed off as a diminutive of browned off with no particular connection to boredom, De Voto regards it as an intensifier of browned off—both of which, unlike completely cheesed, he links particularly to boredom.

Two newspaper accounts give further accounts of the term. One—from "When Is an Airman Cheesed?" in the [Gawler, South Australia] Bunyip (July 18, 1941)—at least partially endorses De Voto's view:

There are three degrees of dejection. The first is the Stage of being "browned off," the second being "brassed off," and the third, which means that there is no hope for you, of being completely "cheesed."

But the second—published about 10 months earlier—reports the reprimand meaning that Partridge mentions in his 1961 Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. From William McGuffin, "Better 'Flap' Your Hardest, You 'Erks', or You'll be 'Buttoned Up' by the 'Nasties'," in the Santa Cruz [California] Sentinel (September 15, 1940):

If you would converse intelligently with the modern warrior you should know the following additions to the slanguage which have come out of a year of war:

Brassed off—bawled out.

I find it hard to believe that brassed off in the attested (but divergent) World War II senses of "bawled out" and "fed up" has no connection to brass off in the 1920s and 1930s sense of "to grumble." However, Google Books and Elephind searches don't yield any published examples of brass off (or brassed off) in conversational or descriptive use during the 1920s and 1930s, so the print record isn't especially helpful here.

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"Top Brass" meant command, because of their brass insignia. "Brassed Off" might mean told off by military authority, in a slang sense.

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Brassed off comes from the over cleaning of brass, with a rag and abrasive polish, which resulted in the brass being rubbed through to the base metal underneath the brass coating, and certainly a centaury before the nineteen thirty’s as some ‘experts’ suggest.

  • Sorry for the misspell of centuary – Ray Smith Mar 14 at 13:05
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    To be useful here, this would need a reference. – GEdgar Mar 14 at 13:35
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My understanding of the phrase is that it originated from the practise of sharpening an engineer's twist drill. The sharp cutting edge was dulled. Otherwise the sharp cutting edge would bite into the brass and chatter. If the cutting edge was removed it could cut into brass sheet or solid bar without any trouble. Hence the drill had been brassed off. I cannot see the connection between the usual understanding of the phrase as in hacked off, pissed off etc.

  • Hi Alan, welcome to EL&U. This is an interesting explanation, but do you have any evidence to support it? We're looking for an authoritative answer, as distinct from a personal viewpoint or even a misconception. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour. :-) – Chappo May 21 at 7:27

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