21

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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  • 2
    I wonder if someone working at a brewery could use that term...
    – SF.
    Nov 22, 2012 at 9:33

5 Answers 5

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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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  • 2
    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. Nov 21, 2012 at 17:18
  • @FumbleFingers That's interesting and useful. Will the expression not be understood outside Scotland? Nov 21, 2012 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, 2012 at 18:33
  • 2
    @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. Nov 21, 2012 at 19:11
  • 2
    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, 2012 at 21:27
6

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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  • 4
    Isn't it a mispronunciation of 'bureau'? Nov 21, 2012 at 16:31
  • 1
    @BarrieEngland No, it's more or less just your standard Glaswegian pronunciation. There's a lot of Scots influence.
    – John Lyon
    Nov 22, 2012 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, 2013 at 16:28
1

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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  • Giro Bank was a banking service set up in 1968 and operated by the British Post Office. The idea was to extend simple banking facilites to people who did not have conventional bank accounts. Before the establishment of Giro Bank benefits like pensions and Unemployment Benefit were paid out by post offices based on payment books issued by the relevant agency. After Giro Bank was established the issuing of Giro cheques which could still be cashed at post offices gradually replaced the books and Giro became synonymous with Benefit Payment for many people.
    – BoldBen
    Feb 6, 2020 at 1:30
1

Oddly, Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, first edition (1937) gives an earlier date for buroo than Terry Victor & Tom Dalzell, The Concise New Partridge Slang Dictionary (2007—cited in Hugo's answer) does for "burroo, brew, buro." First, Partridge in 1937 directs readers of the entry for brew as a noun to buroo, and there he offers this entry:

buroo or brew. An employment-exchange : Public Works' coll[oquial] : from ca. 1924. I.e. bureau.

In the supplement to this dictionary (evidently added in 1937 or 1938), Partridge includes this entry:

buroo, on the. Out of work and drawing the dole: Glasgow coll[oquial] from ca. 1921. McArthur & Long. I.e. bureau.

"MacArthur & Long" refers to Alexander MacArthur & H. Kingsley Long, No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums (1935). A search of the contents of this book yields 15 matches for the phrase "on the buroo," including one on every odd-numbered page from 65 through 81, suggesting that the phrase appears in the title of a chapter running across those pages. At the very least, these matches indicate that "on the buroo" was in use in Glasgow by 1935. Nevertheless, for some reason, the Concise New Partridge doesn't venture a starting date for "burroo, brew, buro" of earlier than 1937.

An Elephind search for "on the buroo" in U.S. and Australian newspaper databases turns up an instance of the phrase from 1930. From "Topics of the Day: Highbrows on the 'Dole'," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Catholic Press (October 30, 1930):

Bureau is, of course, the everyday French word for "office," writing desk, counting house, Government department, and many other meanings attached. It has long been adapted into the English speech. Since the British unemployment benefit, otherwise known as the "dole," was bestowed upon out-of-works the term has passed into the everyday vocabulary of the proletariat and so, according to what philologists and linguists call "the law of laziness," instead of using a circumlocution and saying "I'm drawing the unemployment benefit," the out-of-work with colloquial brevity prefers the concise word bureau, but with an accent and pronunciation unknown in Paris. He remarks "I'm on the buroo," or "I'm on the borrow," or "I'm on the barrow." In the Belfast Police Court recently a maintenance case was heard, and the defendant was asked by the magistrate what means he had to support a wife when he got married. "None," was the reply; "I was on the borough." Yet another shade of accent and pronunciation.

Use of buroo in the sense of Labor Bureau appears even earlier, in "Local and General News," in the [Coraki, New South Wales] Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser (March 4, 1921):

The Unemployed.—The "Sun" tells a typical yarn: It was a warm, drowsy afternoon, and several hundred unemployed reclined on the grassy slope bordering the city's most dignified thoroughfare, while a small, perspiring person, with an amazing loquacity, harangued them fiercely. "Where can we go?" he howled. "We've been to the Premier, we've been to the Minister, we've been to the Labor Buroo. Where can we go?" A somnolent giant heaved his huge frame from the ground, stretched his mighty arms and yawned cavernously. 'You can go to ——," he remarked; "I'm going home."

Also, from "'Real Education': Work at Springfield School: Impressions of a British M.P." in the [Launceston, Tasmania] Examiner (November 17, 1932):

All their scholastic work showed character, and that character was the creation of the outdoor work on which they were engaged, which had instilled into them the saying of the Old Book, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Not one of those boys or girls will ever be found at the "buroo" or in a queue of unemployed. Their natural instincts of industry have not been thwarted and destroyed and by the blending of the industrial part with the scholastic part, the earnestness of the one in which they delight is carried to the other which otherwise in most cases would have seemed to them insufferably boring.

A search of the British Newspaper Archive finds matches for "labour buroo" dating back to 1906. From "Hoisting of the Flag," in the Irish News and Belfast Morning News (August 27, 1906) [combined snippets]:

He repeated the statement to the objects of the "Belfast Labour Progressive Association" made at the previous gatherings, dwelling particularly on the establishment of what he called a "labour buroo" where men could have their names entered for a penny.

It also finds an instance of "buroo dole" from 1921. From "The Questions," in the Port-Glasgow [Renfrewshire] Express (September 30, 1921) [combined snippets]:

She continued by saying that she had never before been to a men's meeting in Port- Glasgow, but she could see that they were out for a merry evening. (Applause.) How was Robinson Crusoe able to live on a barren island without a buroo dole? (Laughter.) Colonel Greig: I suppose it was because he worked for his own living. (Hear, hear and applause.)

And it finds multiple instances of "on the Buroo" from as early as 1922. From an unidentified article in the Glasgow [Lanarkshire] Forward (May 20, 1922) [combined snippets]:

Scene: a quiet corner where millers are pitch-and-toss for bawbees.

James[?] who has gone broke: Gie's o' tuppence, Charlie.

Charlie: Hoo in heaven's name dae [ex]pect I can lend ye tuppence workin' every day--ask Peter the he's on the Buroo!

The Glasgow Forward again uses the phrase on September 2, 1922 ("And when their daring deeds are done They---starve on the Bur—oo.") and yet again on September 16, 1922 ("and the Beard crowd haven't just been so flush, still they're not yet on the Buroo"). It thus appears that the old Partridge dates for "buroo" ("ca. 1924") and "on the buroo" ("ca. 1921") were much closer to the actual starting dates for these terms than the later Concise New Partridge Dictionary's date for "burroo, brew, buro" ("1937") would suggest.

-3

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, 2016 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, 2016 at 2:07

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