Q From Bill Spencer: Can you tell me the origin of the term goldbricking to refer to goofing off, or avoiding work?
A The term has come a long way from its roots in the nineteenth century; along the way it got progressively further and further away from gold, or indeed bricks.
Back in the 1850s, a gold brick was just that — a brick-shaped block of gold that had been cast at a mine for easy transport away. A writer in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1888 described a gold brick cast in Montana as being “a trifle larger than the common clay brick”, but weighing nearly 32 pounds (roughly 14.5 kg). But as a result of what the newspapers at the time called “the celebrated gold brick swindle” of October 1879, the term took on a different meaning.
What happened was that Mr N D Clark, the president of the First National Bank of Ravenna, Ohio, was visiting a mine he owned at Leadville in Colorado. He was approached by five miners, who asked him to advance money on a 52-pound gold brick, which for some reason they weren’t able to ship at the time. The owner told a hard-luck story about having lost all his property and urgently needing money. Mr Clark had the brick taken to a blacksmith, who cut off one corner. An assayer pronounced the gold to be genuine and Mr Clark advanced the miner $10,000 on condition the brick, and the miner, accompanied him to Chicago to get the balance. The miner, of course, vanished off the train on the way; Mr Clark found to his chagrin that the gold brick was like the curate’s egg — good in parts. The corners were gold right enough but the body of the brick was worthless. The ringleader, a man named Peter Lavin, was later caught, though the record is silent on what happened to him.
This wasn’t the first attempt at this style of fraud, but since confidence tricksters aren’t that imaginative, a number of copycat attempts at selling people fake gold bricks followed. The phrase “to sell someone a gold brick” went into the language meaning to swindle and “to gold brick” came to mean perpetrating a fraud.
Your sense was originally US Army slang, which clearly grew out of this. In the early 1900s, gold brick was used for an unattractive young woman (in 1903, midshipmen went on record that a gold brick was a girl who could neither talk, dance, nor look pretty). This is presumably from the idea of a gold brick being a fraud. Incompetent officers appointed from civilian life at the start of the First World War with only minimal training were likewise called gold bricks by enlisted men (in the case of second lieutenants, this was probably provoked by their rank insignia, a gold rectangle).
At some point during that War, the term was extended to refer to anybody not pulling his weight, a malingerer or loafer. This would seem to have grown up not so much from the idea of a person being a fraud (though that presumably contributed) but from that of a criminal who would do anything, including sell fake gold bricks, rather than do an honest day’s work.