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The meaning and origin of the expression: As daft as a brush

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As daft as a brush

Meaning

Very foolish.

Origin

On the face of it, brushes wouldn't seem to be any more daft than anything else. As the source of the expression isn't obvious, various suggestions have been put forward as to what form of brush is being referred to; for instance:

- The phrase originated as 'as soft as a brush' and the brush is the tail of a fox. This is plausible in that 'soft' is a northern English term for stupid, and foxes tails are in fact quite soft to the touch.

- The brushes in the expression are the boys that were employed in the 18th/19th centuries to climb inside chimneys to sweep them. The theory here, which is somewhat less plausible, is that the boys were made into idiots by being repeatedly dropped on their heads when being lowered down the chimneys.

Nevertheless, as we shall see, the 'brush' in this simile is neither of these; it is, as the dictionary would have it "A utensil consisting of a piece of wood or other suitable material, set with small tufts or bunches of bristles, hair, or the like, for sweeping or scrubbing dust and dirt from a surface", that is - a brush. Are brushes daft? Not particularly, but then again I've never had a sensible conversation with one.

In looking for early examples of 'daft as a brush' in print we find that it first starts appearing in the 1950s. An example is in William Morgan Williams's The Sociology of an English Village: Gosforth, 1956:

The wives of two members of a kin-group locally thought to be eccentric and extremely unsociable were pointed out by several people as 'gay queer' and 'daft as a brush'.

[Gosforth is in Cumbria, UK]

As daft as a brush1956 seems later than I would have expected and, as the word 'daft' has always been used more often in the north of England than in other places, a scan of some north country references seems in order. Voilà. 'Daft as a brush' it is in fact predated by an earlier variant 'daft as a besom'. The earliest citation I can find is a listing in William Dickinson's A glossary of the words and phrases of Cumberland, 1859:

Daft, without sense. "Ey, as daft as a besom."

A 'besom' is of course a brush made from twigs and a corroboration that the phrase originated with the 'besom' rather than the 'brush' version comes in another glossary, from just a few years earlier and collected in the same area - John and William Brockett's A glossary of North country words, with their etymology, 1846:

Fond, silly, foolish. An old Northern word. 'Fond-as-a-buzzom', remarkably silly.

The use of 'fond' to mean foolish predated our current usage, which is 'to be fond of something or someone'. That present day meaning migrated from the earlier word, which in time came to mean 'display a foolish affection for'. In Richard Rolle's Psalter, 1339, the author refers to 'fonnyd maydyns' (foolish girls). The word appears in more contemporary language in John Lyly's Euphues: the Anatomy of Wyt, 1578:

He that is young thinketh the old man fond.

So remember, if you are visiting the English northern counties and some old codger says that you are 'as fond as a buzzom', it isn't exactly a compliment.

See other 'as x as y similes'.