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As daft as a brush and its kin

There was a comment on the simile daft as a brush, current in the north of England. As far as I can judge, no one knows why people say so, and I only want to explain why no one will probably ever be able to know it for sure. Similes with as and like in them are almost countless. I have discussed some of them in the past. In 1609, Robert Cawdrey published a book of “delightful” and other similes, and about a hundred years ago, Torsten H. Svartengren brought out a collection of intensifying English similes, culled from the OED and other sources (since that time, the book has been reprinted). Some similes make sense: for example, as coarse as hemp (or heather). Hemp and heather are indeed coarse. But cool as a cucumber? Many phrases of this type exist thanks to alliteration. Perhaps at some time, somewhere, cucumbers were associated with coolness, but, more likely, the simile was coined as a joke: just listen to coo-coo in it!

You can see here a Stradivarius violin, a fit fiddle indeed. (Image by Anton Miller)

Around 1450, people used to say as cunning as a crowder. In the past, cunning meant “skillful,” and crowder meant “fiddler” (crowd “an ancient Celtic stringed instrument”). Musicians are indeed skillful people, but the phrase probably owes its origin to the repetition of the k sound, for other professionals are no less skillful. However, one also recalls fit as a fiddle. When the idiom was coined (the earliest citation in the OED goes back to the beginning of the seventeenth century), fit meant “excellent”; yet the variant fine as a fiddle makes one think that the fiddle was chosen for both its “fitness” and the phonetic shape of its name. Idioms like right as rain and pleased as Punch can fill a volume. Here is a final example of an alliterating simile: “As crooked as Crawley.” Perhaps (perhaps!) the saying reminds us of a winding stream near St. Neots (Cambridgeshire). One should not jump to conclusions and dismiss all alliterating similes as mere exercises in euphony. Jumping in the area of reconstruction is in general not to be recommended. The Internet is full of explanations of the phrase dead as a doornail. I too have discussed it in this blog (see the post for April 15, 2015, devoted to the phrase to get down to brass tacks). The alliteration is obvious and may have been instrumental in coining the simile, but it was not a mere piece of charming gibberish, like cool as a cucumber: nails were called dead for a reason.

(Image by Jixuan Zhou)

Not only doornails are dead. We have as dead as a herring, as dead as mutton, as dead as a rat, and of course as dead as Queen Anne, mainly remembered from the proverbial phrase Queen Anne is dead. I am citing the idioms that I, too, have in my database (the idioms that have been discussed in popular journals in the course of the last three centuries). One can find all of them on the Internet. The definitions are invariably correct (there is not much to define here). However, beware of the notes on their origin if they contain the words of course and undoubtedly. Excuse me for repeating the same advice couched in the same terms again and again, but, unfortunately, the etymology of idioms is no less disputable than the etymology of individual words, even if for a different reason. When it comes to the origin of such phrases, well-known events, like the turmoil in 1714 that followed the death of Queen Anne, are rare. So why do people say as dead as a rat, with its puzzling variant as weak as a rat? Rat hunting was at one time a popular entertainment. I think there may be a connection between the idiom and the superstition, recorded in Shakespeare, about exorcising (“rhyming”) rats to death.

In 1971, the great folklorist Archer Taylor asked the readers of American Notes and Queries (ANQ) whether anyone could explain the simile as innocent as a bird. No one responded. Language subjects dogs, our most faithful domesticated friends, to torrents of abuse. As lazy as a dog is the mildest example of this abuse. Are dogs lazy? Are birds innocent? Is mutton “more dead” than beef or veal? Archer Taylor also wondered at the phrase as sore as a pup. In his reply (ANQ 1971, p. 135), B. Hunter Smeaton, a  serious student of semantics, noted that the noun after as need not be meaningful (!), for the prosody of the formula carries the bulk of the message and diminishes or even eliminates its sense; hence, allegedly, drunk as a lord, mad as a wet hen, and the like. This statement, like the aforementioned reference to alliteration, is not diagnostic, because one never knows when one may dismiss the second part as nonsense or as a word beginning with a certain consonant. In my database, I have two notes trying to explain the simile dead as a herring. Both notes are clever. But perhaps the reference to herring is a joke? Cf. mutton, above.

A truly deep cat. (Image by Max Baskakov)

The person who coined the phrase as dead as Chelsey must have had some Chelsey in mind! In 1857, an old lady in Norfolk who said that her cat (!) was as deep as Chelsey could not explain the reference. I know nothing about deep cats, even though Chelsey Reach certainly exists. Idioms, like words, wander from mouth to mouth and may be garbled beyond recognition. All that allows me to say something about the northern idiom daft as a brush. Daft means “foolish” and is a probable etymological doublet of deft. The development was from “pleasant, gentle; friendly” to “silly” (mad has a similar history!). I’ll let our readers google for the origin of the idiom. What I found on the Internet is complicated beyond belief and therefore did not fill me with enthusiasm (intricate etymologies are usually untrustworthy), and I’ll venture my own hypothesis. Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary mentions “extremely eager” as one of the northern senses of daft (probably an intermediate step between “obliging” and “stupid”). Now, a new broom sweeps clean. Couldn’t the initial reference be to a very efficient, “extremely eager” new brush? But of course, those who use the adjective daft remember only the main sense (“stupid”), and the simile puzzles them.

Don’t mock a bald prophet! (Image via Wikimedia)

However, my hypothesis may be all wrong. Compare the phrase (as) funny as a crutch. A brush, if my suggestion has any value, may be “daft,” but a funny crutch? In the old days, physical deformity was supposed to be “funny,” and invalids, including veterans, were subjected to ridicule on the streets. Today, this abomination makes us sick. I’ll skip the exegesis, but wasn’t the Hebrew prophet Elisha mocked because he was bald? In any case, the English simile does not go back to antiquity. It has been suggested that the source of the idiom is Alonzo F. Hill’s book John Smith’s Funny Adventures on a Crutch, first published in Philadelphia in 1869. (Those interested in the adventures of one-legged soldiers are also advised to read Chapter 10 of Gogol’s Dead Souls, which contains “The Tale of Captain Kopeikin.”) A short discussion of the crutch idiom surfaced only in 1945, and the OED does not include it. Therefore, I don’t know its age. My reference to John Smith and Captain Kopeikin is a typical shaggy dog story: a funny crutch probably has nothing to do with Hill and is totally unrelated to a daft besom. But what if there is a connection?

Once again: idioms are fun.

Featured image by Svetlana Sinitsyna

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Thank you for your very satisfying explanation of daft as a brush.

  2. Ian Ritchie

    “Funny as a crutch” was very popular in the 60s and 70s. It was always meant to be ironic. Crutches are not funny so something as “funny as a crutch” was something that was not funny. Another, even more gruesome ironic simile of the time, was “as funny as a truckload of dead babies” – obviously, something NOT funny.

  3. Margaret Catambay

    My cucmbers are cool because they have a high water content, and I keep them in the fridge.

    I tried to find out the secret that makes the “creme” filling in Oreos feel cool in the mouth. No luck so far. Truly addicted!

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