Words and Politics (and Bold as Brass)

In this political season it may be worthwhile to take a moment to ponder the relationship between words and political reality, and which one really influences the other. Do words shape political reality? Or does reality change the meaning of our words? Mark Forsyth takes a good look at this topic in this TED Talk:

One correction, however: I believe that Forsyth gets the origin of the phrase bold as brass wrong. While the tale of Brass Crosby may have helped popularize the phrase, it’s unlikely to be the origin.

While the phrase isn’t recorded until 1789, eighteen years after Crosby’s arrest, the first citation in the OED reads:

1789 G. Parker Life’s Painter xv. 162 He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.

So we know that the phrase was in oral use earlier than 1789. How much earlier? We really don’t know. But the word brass has meant effrontery and impudence since the mid seventeenth century, long before Crosby was born. And the brass, with the definite article, also predates Crosby:

a1734 R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. ⁋17 The Author hath the Brass to add, etc.

Furthermore, the pairing of the words bold and brass can be found earlier, albeit not in the form of a phrase.

There is this from an anonymous pamphlet, A Label Without being a Libel against Truth, published by J. Roberts of London in 1728 (emphasis mine):

Prejudice is a Glass if you look through,
It misrepresents e’ry thing to you.
It makes Folks with good Truth to be too bold,
Cries up the canker’d Brass, and cries down pure Gold,
And in this Book such various Faults will find,
As ain’t seen, but by a Prejudiced Mind.

A search of Eighteenth Century Collections Online turns up some fifteen similar co-locations published between 1700–71. It’s not the phrase, but it does show that people were making the alliterative pairing long before Brass Crosby appeared on the scene.

[Tip o’ the Hat to Andrew Sullivan and The Daily Dish]

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Sources: brass, n., Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd Edition, 1989; Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

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