April 01, 2015 17:51 UTC

Words and Their Stories

Top Brass

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with his generals in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28, 2014. The generals are the
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with his generals in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28, 2014. The generals are the "top brasses" but Putin is the "big cheese" in Russia.
Top Brass
Top Brassi
X


I'm Susan Clark with the Special English program Words and Their Stories.

The Italians have an old saying -- "Il dolce far niente." The words mean it is sweet, or enjoyable, to do nothing.

On weekends and during holidays, many of us enjoy doing nothing. But most of the time we have to work. And, to keep our jobs, we must work hard. Our employer will not like it if we do nothing.

American workers often call their employers "bosses." The word boss comes from the Dutch word "baas," meaning master.

Sometimes company bosses are called the brass. They also are sometimes called top brass, or brass hats.

Experts disagree about how these strange expressions started. But, they may have come from Britain. Leaders of the 19th century British army wore pieces of metal called oak leaves on their hats. The metal brass has a color similar to that of gold. So a leader or commander came to be called a member of the brass. Or he might have been called a brass hat. Or even the top brass.

By the 1940s, the expression had spread beyond military leaders. It also included civilian officials.

A newspaper in the American city of Philadelphia used the term in 1949. It called the most important police officials top brass.

Other expressions that mean boss or employer have nothing to do with brass or hats. One of these is big cheese. A cheese is a solid food made from milk.

The expression probably started in America in the late 19th century. Some experts believe it comes from a word in the Uersian or urdu languages -- chiz. The meaning is "a thing." So the meaning of big cheese may be a big thing.

Other experts say the word "cheese" in this expression was really an incorrect way of saying chief. The word "chief" means "leader." So the expression may mean big leader.

An employer usually does not object to being called boss. But most workers would not call their employers big cheeses, top brass or brass hats to their faces. These words are not really insulting. But neither do they show great respect.

Employers also have expressions to describe their workers. One of them that describes a good worker is that he or she "works like a Trojan." This expression probably comes from the ancient writings of the Greek poet Homer. He wrote about the Trojans who lived in the city of Troy. He said Trojans worked very hard to protect their city. Now, the expression often is used to describe an employee who works hard for a company. A loyal, hard-working employee is said to "work like a Trojan."

So be happy if your company's brass hats say you work like a Trojan. They may consider you valuable enough to increase your pay.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mariette Bouchard from: Quebec
02/22/2015 2:32 PM
It is very interesting to learn those new words and their origins.
As for doing nothing during the weekends it's very difficult to me. I'm glad when I see Friday coming but on Saturday I'm always looking for something to do. I think that most of people do not enjoy doing nothing but doing what they like to do, doing all those things they cannot do when we work for our weekly pay. I also think that's why voluntary work is so popular. Then, people don't work for money to pay for their apartment, food, clothing or anything else. They only work to fill a profound need of doing what they love to do.


by: Sam
02/22/2015 10:45 AM
It is nice to be hard worker, and call a trojan , but the most best thing to be a brass hat ( a boss ).

Learn with The News

  • Audio Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan Admits Defeat

    Also, Iranian and U.S. negotiators agree to take more time to try to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear program; new U.S. Treasury sanctions target Syrian official and companies; and the government of Myanmar and representatives from 16 major ethnic rebel groups sign a draft cease-fire accord. More

  • Audio Tensions Rise Again over Falkland Islands

    Britain and Argentina went to war for the territory in 1982. The British win helped the country's government win re-election. Argentina says Britain's move to increase security on the islands now is political and provocative. Argentina has officially protested to several international organizations. More

  • Starbucks' April Fools' Day prank: New giant and very tiny coffee cups

    Video A Day for Fools

    April Fools’ Day is celebrated in many countries around the world. In France, it’s called Poisson d’Avril or “Fish of April.” In Scotland, the holiday is often called “Gowkie Day.” In Iraq, it is called Kithbet Neesan or “April Lie.” In the U.S., it is a day of joking and playing tricks on friends. More

  • medieval

    Video US Restaurant Serves Medieval Art of Fighting

    European martial arts, unlike popular Asian martial arts, are not widely practiced and are unknown to most people. But, a restaurant near Washington is the center of an effort to make the Medieval fighting skill more popular. More

  • Audio UN Agency Questions Thailand’s Air Safety

    The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reported “significant safety concerns” with Thailand’s air safety practices last week. The negative report may prevent some flights from coming out of the kingdom and forced Thailand’s government to deal quickly with the results on Monday. More

Featured Stories

  • Health workers take a blood sample from a child in Gusau, northern Nigeria.

    Audio Study: Women Prefer to Go to Female Health Workers

    A study in mainly Islamic communities in northern Nigeria found that women were more likely to see female health care workers. Male health workers do travel from town to town, but many women patients do not want to talk with a man about their own health care needs. More

  • A woman wakes up on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 7, 2013.

    Video Community Center Helps Women on Skid Row

    Many homeless people live in the “Skid Row” area of Los Angeles, California. These men and women have no permanent place to live. Skid Row is a place where many social service groups can be found. They work to help the homeless find work and a place to live. One such organization works with women. More

  • Audio New Treatment for AIDS Called a ‘Big Deal’

    Read on to learn words like mutate, neutralize and antiretroviral as you learn how researchers have found a way to trick HIV, the virus causing AIDS, into killing itself. The difficulty level might be high as this article describes what happens when a genetically modified cell becomes an HIV killer. More

  • Video Angelina Jolie Has Second Surgery to Prevent Cancer

    The 39-year-old actress published a piece in The New York Times about her decision to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to protect herself from cancer. She had a double mastectomy two years ago for the same reason. The latest surgery leaves the mother of six unable to have more children. More

  • Space Rocket to Launch Weather Satellite Into Deep Space

    Video Satellite Will Watch Sun Storms, Send Warnings to Earth

    Strong storms on the sun can cause problems for satellites, radio communications and even airplane travel. A satellite is now traveling 1.5 million kilometers to enter the sun’s orbit, just in time to observe the extreme weather on the sun at its most violent time the sun’s 11-year cycle. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner blog
Confessions of an English Learner blog

 

 

 

Tell us About Our Programs