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Part brass rags

Q From Richard Francis: Your piece about bold as brass caused me to wonder about an expression I find in P G Wodehouse stories: to part brass rags, to have a falling-out. I can’t for the life of me figure out where it might come from.

A The usual story bothers me, as it causes my folk-etymological antennae to quiver a little. But there is supporting evidence for it and I am persuaded to take it at face value.

Let us assume you are a rating (a non-commissioned sailor) on a vessel of Her Majesty’s Navy, not the Royal Navy of our current monarch, however, but that of Queen Victoria. Say around 1890. Naval officers were as obsessed then as they are now with keeping everything clean and polished, particularly the brasswork. To aid you in your eternal polishing and repolishing, you would have a bag that contained cleaning rags, emery paper, and probably a bit of scouring brick.

You would also have a partner, a chum with whom you shared your cleaning duties and with whom you could pass the time of day in conversation. A mark of friendship on board ship was that friends shared their worldly goods, even establishing a shared bag of cleaning materials. This friend, sharer of your brass cleaning rags, was known as your raggie.

If the two of you quarrelled, you divvied up the contents of your shared bag and found somebody else with whom to share them, along with your duties and your stories. In the slang of the time, you parted brass rags with your former partner. (When you did so, you also lost your raggie, but this isn’t the origin of to lose one’s rag, which is from Yorkshire dialect of an earlier period.)

Two contributors to Notes and Queries in April 1916 gave this as the origin; to judge from their replies, both were navy men, one of them signing himself as a former chaplain to the Royal Navy. We may be reluctant to gainsay a man in holy orders who knew the phrase first-hand, though it’s possible that he was a saintly but gullible clergyman who had been taken in by the well-spun yarn of a lower-deck man.

The other Notes and Queries response in similar terms makes this unlikely, as does a slightly earlier version of the tale, which is also the earliest recorded example of the term we know about. It’s in a book of 1898, The Tadpole of an Archangel and Other Naval Stories, by W P Drury:

When “Pincher” Martin, Ordinary, and “Nobby” Clarke, A.B., desire to prove the brotherly love with which each inspires the other, it is their custom to keep their brasswork cleaning rags in a joint ragbag. But, should relations become strained between them, the bag owner casts forth upon the deck his sometime brother’s rags; and with the parting of the brassrags hostilities begin.

P G Wodehouse used it a lot — it appears in at least five of his early works that I know of, in the decade from 1906 onwards — and my guess is that he did a lot to popularise this odd bit of lower-deck slang.

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Page created 17 Jan 2009