Strike a Light

But we’re not crushing grapes for the Stewpot.

When I took you for a Burton, I introduced you to some rhyming slang and provided the following example, which had caused me some angst:

I’m so boracic I can’t go to the rub-a-dub or even pay my Burton.

In plain English this roughly means:

I am rather short on money so I couldn’t possibly go to the public house, let alone facilitate the payment of my monthly house living bill.

You could have blown me down with a feather when, soon after I published that post, I read the latest volume of the Bryant and May series of books from the indomitable Christopher Fowler and stumbled across the expression again with the spelling I would expect:

'What’s that in your hand?’

He looked down, startled to find the box in his palm. ‘There’s nothing in it yet ’cause I’m a bit brassic at the moment, but I’ll fill it, I promise. I’ve got a can of Fanta in my bag; I could give you the ring pull off that for now.’

‘As irresistible as it sounds,’ said Meera, ‘I think I’ll wait.’

(Credit: From Christopher Fowler’s Oranges and Lemons)

Mr. Fowler is a Londoner. He knows his stuff by doing both the book research and the legwork. His books and blog are testament to this effort, and well worth your time to read. I therefore have no doubts that brassic means skint. The ‘boracic’ in expression when I initially researched it was new to me. I always thought the rhyming expression was ‘brassic’. Which it is. But why is it now so?

In Cockney rhyming slang, the original term for skint is ‘boracic lint’. In passing, skint is itself a slang term with an interesting derivation, arriving from the verb skin, as in skinning an animal. In the late 19th century United States, the term gained a colloquial use to mean plunder, fleece or strip. A skin-game was one in which one player had no chance against the other. These days, a skins-game (or just skins) is a monetary rewarded style of match-play golf. Each hole is worth an amount of money to the single player who takes the fewest strokes to hole out. If two or more players tie, then the prize money rolls over to the next hole. Roll-overs continue until one player again wins a hole outright. There seems to be some dispute as to the derivation of the name for this type of golf match, but one does contest that the use of ’skins’ is from the connotation of ‘skinning’ an opponent. If someone loses a hole for a sizeable money pot, then they could well have been ‘skinned alive’ meaning swindled or fleeced. Skinned to skint… not a great phonetic leap, is it?

Boracic lint is a type of medical dressing popularised in the late 19th century, boracic lint is lint, an absorbent one side nap raised linen or cotton fabric, soaked in a solution of glycerol and boracic acid (glycerol: a thick sweet-tasting liquid that contains antimicrobial and antiviral properties which prove invaluable in the treatment of wounds; and boracic acid or boric acid: a weak acid of Boron - a metallic chemical element - that has antibacterial properties, making it effective in the treatment of wounds). The boracic lint preparation is less in use these days, but in its Victorian heyday, boracic lint was an extremely effective treatment for leg ulcers as Dr. Archibald Pearson explained before the Glasgow Southern Medical Association on the 8th March 1883.

So there’s our first clue, did you spot it? A second clue to dismiss immediately came courtesy of a celebrity article I read from one of our leading tabloid newspapers:

Other interpretations have suggested [brassic] comes from the Latin term Brassicus–which means to be poor.

I’ve searched high and low for this ‘Latin term’ and all I come back with is cabbages and no Crackerjack pencil. I’m not buying that Latin derivation. I can certainly entertain brassic as being a written version of boracic. Phonetically written, boracic is ‘bɒˈrasɪk’. Brassic has a less stressed first syllable than boracic, and the latter has a more pronounced short ‘o’ sound after the ‘b’. We tend to the lazy, so dropping a vowel sound certainly works as the second part of boracic is an identical sound to the ‘-rassic’ of brassic. Having said all that, I always thought brassic meant cold: being the much shortened version of the expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’ So saying ‘it’s brassic out’ meant ‘it’s rather cold outside.’ Freezing one’s balls off is a nautical topic for another time, so quickly on.

Our next clue for the magnifying glass and deerstalker. Brass was the metal of choice for the casting low value coins of yore. Being down to the last few brass coins in your pocket could be interpreted to mean one is skint, as you have little money. So whilst only having a couple of brass coins to rub together shows being momentarily poor, I find it difficult to believe it spawned the word brassic and brassic substituted for boracic, given their similarity of pronunciation. Humans like to kick back and not think too hard. So when you have a five letter word, why spend the extra breath on a seven letter word? Moving on.

Another link between brassic and brass, and one I also hold little faith in, refers to the expression brass tacks. However, ‘getting down to brass tacks’ means more about getting down to the basics of how something works or operates rather than having any monetary sense. Many reasons on origination of brass tacks, but personally I go for the analogy of shoes of yore not being much good without tacks: therefore tacks were vital in order to provide usable footwear and held everything together. Getting down to brass tacks is trying to identify what is holding everything together. Sure, money holds much together, but I think it is a very long stretch to take brass tacks as having anything to do with being skint. No clues in that minor detour.

So the clues identified, and my little grey cells tickled, my deduction: medical practises evolved, boracic lint usage waned, the full ‘boracic lint’ expression of deepest Cockneyland was shortened to boracic then finally brassic. Humans tend to the lazy!