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I've heard the following idiom being used a few times recently but am unsure where it's come from:

He's a few trombones short of a marching band.

I don't know exactly what it means and I can't find any reference to it but I'm sure that I've heard it on TV before. Any references/help would be appreciated.

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A few X short of a Y
This Spoken English - Namrata Palta · 2006
Not possessing all of one's mental faculties; crazy, stupid
In these phrases, X is a common component of Y. Y represents full mental capacity, and the lack of a few X implies a lack of full mental capacity...

. a few fries short of a happy meal
. a few sandwiches short of a picnic
. two bricks short of a load
. a few syllables short of a Haiku
. a couple of cans short of a six-pack

I suspect the basic trope has only been around (or at least, only widespread) for a few decades. The nearest written version of OP's example I could find was...

a few trombones short of a brass band

...from a 1998 British stage review publication. But several of those "typical" examples suggest an Australian origin to me, and if this NSW Public Schools Millennium Marching Band is anything to go by, marching bands are still alive and kicking down under!


It's partly the fact that there are so many variations that makes me think it's "recent" (so still "novel"). Here's a bunch more from The Mammoth Book of Insults - Geoff Tibballs · 2011...

He's a few trees short of an orchard
He's a few clowns short of a circus
He's a few peas short of a pod
He's a few currants short of a fruit cake
He's a few guppies short of an aquarium
He's a few flowers short of an arrangement
He's a few spokes short of a wheel
He's several nuts short of a full pouch
He's a few chapters short of a novel
He's a few pancakes short of a stack
He's a couplet short of a sonnet
...

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  • Good answer. William Muir, Police: Streetcorner Politicians (1979) uses (and explains) "three bricks short of a load," and...
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 30, 2023 at 7:42
  • ...an article in the November 1984 ABA Journal has "one brick short of a load," giving that wording a ten-year advantage over the earliest instance of 'X sandwich[es] short of picnic" that I could find.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 30, 2023 at 7:42
  • I remember, some 60 years ago, my aunt describing some people as 'ninepence to the shilling' (the old British shilling being twelve old pence), so the idea isn't that recent. Nov 30, 2023 at 9:20
  • @KateBunting: My grandmother used to say someone was right as ninepence - by which I think only meant "not all there", as opposed to the homophobic queer as a nine-bob note which was also common back in the 60s. I've just discovered from this pre-Internet 1890 Q&A that it came from right as ninepins. Nov 30, 2023 at 11:51
  • Wikipedia says that as right as ninepence means 'Perfectly all right; in sound condition'. Nov 30, 2023 at 12:11

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