Q From Nigel Ross, Italy: I’d like to ask if you could fill in the gaps about the meaning of the expression as bold as brass. It’s usually said to refer to a certain very bold Mr Brass Crosby, at times described as the Mayor of London, at times the Chief Magistrate of London. And it’s said that the phrase goes back to his times, in other words the 18th century. Do you have any insights?
A Thank you for introducing me to Mr Brass Crosby and to the story that connects his name with the expression. Mr Crosby was a lawyer and politician, a supporter of John Wilkes, who became Lord Mayor of London in 1770. He had a famous run-in with Parliament, which regarded publication of reports of their debates to be a breach of parliamentary privilege. When two printers accused of publishing reports appeared before the City magistrates, Crosby freed them; later he arrested a messenger from the House of Commons who had demanded a third printer be brought before the House. Crosby was called to the bar of the House and, despite arguing forcefully for the ancient rights of the City, was committed to jail. He became highly popular as a result of his defiance.
The first known use of bold as brass is in George Parker’s book Life’s Painter of Variegated Characters in Public and Private Life of 1789: “He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.” This is so soon after Mr Crosby’s troubles with Parliament that it’s plausible there’s a connection with his curious first name. The problem, as so often, is that there’s no direct evidence, nor is any ever likely to be found for a term that from Parker’s description began as slang, which by definition was transmitted orally. For the same reason, it might have been widely known and used for many years before Mr Crosby’s time. We just don’t know.
What is certain is that the idea behind it is much older. Brass is a shiny, hard metal that has often been thought cheap and vulgar, a debased or pretentious rival to gold, whose use in musical instruments has suggested stridency. In the sense of a person who is impudent or insensible to shame, brass had by the time of Crosby been in the language for two centuries (Shakespeare is the first known user); brassy, for someone having a face of brass and so unblushing, impudently confident or forward is slightly older (though its use for a woman who is tastelessly showy or loud in appearance or manner is relatively recent), while brazen, the adjective for something brass-like in its figurative sense of a shameless person, is sixteenth-century. Brass face, an impudent person, is from the seventeenth century (its relative brass cheek is again more recent). So an inventive Londoner would have had no shortage of precedents on which to base the alliterative bold as brass.
Other more recent usages of brass that would have been unknown at the time include brass or top brass in the sense of senior military officers. This was originally an American term, a joke based on their gold braid and other bright insignia, but it dates only from the end of the nineteenth century, so over a century after bold as brass came into the language. Brass for a prostitute (rhyming slang, brass nail = tail), which was also suggested as a link, is from the 1930s, though tail in various sexual senses would have been known to Londoners of Mr Crosby’s day.