Part brass rags, to

And take your damn Eagles albums with you.

Dear Word Detective: I am listening to P.G. Wodehouse and he uses the phrase “parting brass rags.” I looked it up and found a lot of references to the British Navy, but I always suspect attributions to this source. What say you? — Andrea McCollough.

That’s a great question. It’s got a mysterious phrase, the British Navy, and, best of all, P.G. Wodehouse. A trifecta of cool. Incidentally, your declaration “I am listening to P.G. Wodehouse” startled me at first, until I remembered that he died not all that long ago, in 1975, and no doubt left many audio recordings behind, though I don’t think I’ve ever heard his voice. I do have a recording of S.J. Perelman reading some of his stories, and he doesn’t sound at all like I had imagined. Then again, neither do I. And I have no idea who that guy in the mirror is.

OK, onward. “To part brass rags” means “to part after a quarrel; to sever all connection with a former friend.” Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, perhaps the most prolific, certainly one of the most stylistically talented, and arguably the funniest of 20th century English writers, apparently used the phrase “part brass rags” in several of his stories. In fact, Wodehouse is probably largely responsible for popularizing and preserving the phrase.

You’ll find brief explanations of the origin of “part brass rags” in a number of reference works, but the research and explanation I found that rings true and does the best job of fleshing out the context of the phrase comes from the British lexicographer Michael Quinion at his excellent World Wide Words website (www.worldwidewords.org).

According to Quinion’s explanation, “to part brass rags” originated in the British Royal Navy in the 19th century. Enlisted men spent an inordinate amount of their time afloat cleaning the ship itself, especially polishing the numerous brass fittings, using a kit including polishing rags, emery paper and the like, all kept in a bag. It was traditional for sailors to do such duty in pairs, and along with a bag of cleaning tools and rags, you shared with your mate a bond of friendship that often lasted years.

If, however, the friendship was ruptured by a serious argument and your differences were deemed irreconcilable, each man would find a new cleaning companion, and the shared bag of brass cleaning rags, etc., would be divided between the former friends. Thus “to part brass rags” came to mean “to part bitterly from a once valued friend.”

As Michael Quinion himself notes, this story reeks of the sort of folk-etymology fairy dust that one finds all over the internet in labored and absurd efforts to trace nearly every interesting word or phrase in English to the Royal Navy, so you are richly justified in your skepticism. But Quinion cites two early 20th century sources that back up this origin, and I trust his professional judgment. This seems to be one of those rare cases where a nifty phrase really did come from the Royal Navy.

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