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Pronounced /ˈbrʌmɪdʒəm/Help with pronunciation

The British midlands city of Birmingham was at one time also called Brummagem, a local variant on its name that has given us the nickname for one of its inhabitants, Brummie.

Although it has been a major industrial city since the Industrial Revolution — in 1862 George Borrow described it as “the great workshop of England” — its reputation was often for poor-quality goods. This all began in the seventeenth century when it was no more than a village. In 1691 Guy Miege noted in The New State of England that it was “particularly noted a few years ago for the counterfeit groats made here, and from hence dispersed all over the Kingdom” (a groat was a four-pence coin, of silver when genuine).

In the nineteenth century, great quantities of cheap plated goods, such as trinkets and gilt jewellery, were being made in Birmingham. As a result, its bad reputation resurfaced, so much so that its old name came to be used figuratively for anything that was considered tawdry, not just items of Birmingham manufacture.

An example is in a work of 1862, The Reminiscences of Captain Gronow: “The equipages were generally much more gorgeous than at a later period, when democracy invaded the parks, and introduced what may be termed a ‘brummagem society,’ with shabby-genteel carriages and servants”. The short form Brummy was taken to Australia and has remained a term of insult for something poorly made or falsely showy. The city’s workmen were thought to be clumsy and unskilled, hence a Brummagem screwdriver was a hammer (an insult that has been applied to several other places and nationalities as well).

The days of such abuse are now long past, and few people associate the ideas behind Brummagem with the modern city of Birmingham.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 13 Dec 2003