Sunday, 21 July 2013


I did not have a job when I left school - it was the early seventies and the last days of Edward Heath's government and unemployment was the height of fashion. What I did have was a Saturday job in a hardware shop which, for a couple of months full time, gave me a meagre income and very tired feet.

At the time I had no idea ‘hardware’ was also used as a slang term for ammunition during the days when Birmingham’s Gun Quarter and munitions factories were employed as many in cottage industries as the city’s more famous Jewellery Quarter did at its height. The most famous of the ‘hardware’ manufacturers was BSA, a name now synonymous with motorcycles but one which began as Birmingham Small Arms and abbreviated to BSA. The military relied so heavily on supplies from Birmingham that those from the Second City became known as Hardware-Blokes. This was then transferred to those who sold metal items door-to-door, with their wares known as Hardware-Swag.

The ‘hardware’ term was only in use for about 50 years from 1870. Before, during and afterwards the residents of Birmingham were more commonly known as Brummies. This came from Brummagen, a local name which developed from the idea of the city’s name being ‘Bromwich-ham’ and influenced by neighbouring settlements such as Castle Bromwich and West Bromwich and the development of the terms Brummie and Brum are obvious.

Around the same time the term Brummagem came into use with a very different meaning. Look in the Oxford English Dictionary under ‘Brummagem’ and see the definition ‘counterfeit, cheap and showy’. This comes from a time when the Jewellery Quarter was found to have a number of unscrupulous characters who were watering down the gold with cheaper metals. The reason gold is so valuable is threefold: it is comparatively rare, does not tarnish, and is extremely malleable making it easy to make into the intricate jewellery designs. As the percentage of gold in the product drops so the finished product increases in size and gaudiness.

While neither slang term is in use for metal-working, I know of no other example where a slang place name has entered the dictionary with a completely different meaning at the same time as a word in the dictionary has come to be a slang term for a person from the same place.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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