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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

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'As daft as a brush'?

To be 'as daft as a brush' is to be very stupid or foolish.

What's the origin of the phrase 'As daft as a brush'?

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.

As daft as a brushNevertheless, 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 1940s. The earliest that I know of in print is from an account of a court case, printed in the Lincolnshire Echo, June 1944:

"I will agree with anything that says I am daft, daft as a brush, but I have enough sense to keep away from your daughter."

'Daft as a brush' may be a variant of an older expression 'as mazed as a brish'. 'Mazed' is defined in the OED as meaning 'Stupefied, dazed; insane, crazed; bewildered, confused' and dates from the 14th century. 'Brish' is a country dialect word for brush which dates from the 17th century, as is found in this street hawker's song published in a song collection in 1669:

Or have you ever seen or heard
The Mortal with a Lyon Tawny beard,
He lives as merrily as any heart can wish,
And still he cries buy a Brish, by a Brish.

'As mazed as a brish' appears in print quite some years before 'daft as a brush' as in the below example from the Exeter Flying Post, June 1892. The printed text is in a jokey form of doggerel, of which the below is a more readable rendition:

Mister Editor, when you see Susan in the City, please say us all send our kind love. She lives somewhere near the Cathedral, and is as fine a maid as ever stepped in shoe leather, and Walter Axford is as mazed as a brish after Susan.

'Mazed as a brish' and 'daft as a brush' mean the same thing so there's reason to surmise that the later one derived from the earlier.

There have been numerous 'as daft as a...' similes used over the centuries and why the 'brush' version has stuck with us isn't clear, or why a brush was chosen to symbolise daftness.

1944 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 pre-dated by an earlier variant still - '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 an indication that the phrase originated with the 'besom' rather than the 'brish' or 'brush' versions 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 pre-dated our current usage, which is 'to feel affection for'. That present day meaning migrated from the earlier meaning of 'foolish'. 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, as far as I know the variants of 'as daft as a brush' emerged at these dates:

As fond as a besom - 1846
As daft as a besom - 1859
As mazed as a brish - 1892
As daft as a brush - 1944

Whether they are effectively all the same phrase and one emerged from another or whether they were coined independently is anyone's guess. The question also remains, why would a besom/brish/brush be thought of as daft?

See other 'as x as y similes'.

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