Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Built Like a Brick Idiom

Last week, I was eating lunch with a friend who said an early car of his had been "built like a brick-shithouse." Obviously, I knew this meant it was built solidly, but "brickhouse," thanks to Lionel Richie, also inexplicably means sexy (I get the "built solidly" part of being good-looking, but it's no compliment to be compared to an outhouse).

So, I wondered, did "Brick Shithouse" originally mean strong, sexy, neither, both?

I posited that the phrase probably came from World War I, when outhouses might have been built stronger to resist shrapnel; but also that "brick shithouse" might have become colorful, memorable language because a permanent structure like that in a war zone could have become an symbol of absurdity. Therefore, I wondered if "built like a brick shithouse" actually meant built unnecessarily or disproportionately.

But the phrase has been evolving for awhile and things are less clear than that. Some history, then a theory.

The ur-reference to "Brick Shithouse" (to be henceforth called B.S.) comes from 1922. Jim Tully, "a vagabond, pugilist, and American writer" from Ohio--this is an epitaph I'd enjoy having, if not earning--had his character, a boxer named Emmett Lawler, say, "Every time I fight him my hands are swollen for a week. He's built like a brick schoolhouse."

Tully, an odd literary figure known for writing about the early-Hollywood scene, was a master of hard-boiled American idiom, but it seems unlikely that he coined the metaphorical brick line.

Here's the tremendous(ly sexist) dedication in Tully's Emmett Lawler.

Even if Tully did coin it, "brick schoolhouse" clearly refers to a man here, a solid, probably unattractive man.

Tully again used a variation, "built like a brick barn," in a 1936 novel, Bruiser, but the Canadian writer, Earle Birney employed the genuine article in his book, Turvey: a Military Picaresque. (aside: Birney's most famous poem is called "David" and is widely anthologized in Canada). In the following, we can see some solid World War II lingo and then the B.S. insult:

Once used to refer to a strong man, brick buildings are here used to refer to ugly, perhaps mannish women. But Turvey is the main character and we learn elsewhere that he likes plump ladies, so Boggs's fat jokes are probably meant to seem jerky. Either way, somewhere between 1948 and 1977, Brickhouse further evolved.

So here's my theory. The brick metaphor had been percolating for awhile. Then came the Great Depression. As I've learned today, the Works Progress Administration "trained an entire workforce" of folks to build up and repair outhouses to a higher standard during that time (thanks to the authors of Outhouse for the scoop).

Jokes about government waste aside, many people worked to construct stronger privys in the 30s, which now had to have concrete foundations. My guess is that don't-tread-on-me types would have seen this as an unnecessary improvement and an intrusion (Keep your hands off my toilet paper!). Disproportionately-built outhouses, then, might have become tantamount to showiness and monstrosity.

When soldiers from all over the country (and the continent) got together for the war--and when they felt like cursing--they might have thought back to those unnatural shithouses. The women they were with in France, instead of being yellow roses of Texas, might have seemed out-of-place to them, unpleasant, overly-strong, like that damn government-issue brick shithouse. Later, though, as the soldiers thought back to their war-time glories, maybe these Helens seemed ideal.

And that's how a Brickhouse can be a man, a beast, a beauty, and a cliche that, like an outhouse itself, is both useful and a little uncomfortable.

This is a stretch, I admit, but no less likely than any of the other improbable journeys this bizarre idiom must have taken to become what it is.

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