Monday, June 06, 2005



An offbeat word to add to your lexicon of invective is the adjective brummagem. The master of invective, H.L. Mencken, was fond of it. Here is an example, from his book In Defense of Women:
Finally, there is his conscience -- the accumulated sediment of ancestral faint-heartedness in countless generations, with vague religious fears and superstitions to leaven and mellow it. What! a conscience? Yes, dear friends, a conscience. That conscience may be imperfect, inept, unintelligent, brummagem. It may be indistinguishable, at times, from the mere fear that some one may be looking. It may be shot through with hypocrisy, stupidity, play-acting. But nevertheless, as consciences go in Christendom, it is genuinely entitled to the name -- and it is always in action.
Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (1913) defines brummagem as "counterfeit; gaudy but worthless; sham" and derives it from "Birmingham (formerly Bromwycham), Eng., the great mart and manufactory of gilt toys, cheap jewelry, etc."

The history of gaudy itself is interesting -- it comes ultimately from Latin gaudium (joy, gladness) through Old English gaude (trick, jest). The beads on a rosary that separate the decades were once known as gaudi beads, because they are flashier than the other beads.

Brummagem overlaps somewhat in meaning with tawdry, also derived from a proper name: "Said to be corrupted from Saint Audrey, or Auldrey, meaning Saint Ethelreda, implying therefore, originally, bought at the fair of St. Audrey, where laces and gay toys of all sorts were sold. This fair was held in Isle Ely, and probably at other places, on the day of the saint, which was the 17th of October." (Webster's).

A proper name also lies behind another synonym of brummagem, and that is pinchbeck. Pinchbeck is an alloy of copper and zinc, used as a substitute for gold in cheap jewelry, and named after its inventor, watchmaker Christopher Pinchbeck (1670-1732). Pinchbeck is sometimes called brummagem gold. It can be both a noun and an adjective.

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