U 12.234-7: — Cockburn. Dimsey, wife of David Dimsey, late of the admiralty: Miller, Tottenham, aged eightyfive: Welsh, June 12, at 35 Canning Street, Liverpool, Isabella Helen. How’s that for a national press, eh, my brown son? How’s that for Martin Murphy, the Bantry jobber?
“My brown son” is a term of familiarity which has confused some commentators. Gifford’s annotation (“low slang for penis”) seems speculative and unwarranted, but the ultimate origin of the expression is elusive. Joyce added “my brown son” to his original sentence as the text developed in October 1921.
As a familiar expression of affection applied to a friend (not a son) it certainly predates Ulysses. The Weekly Irish Times ran a story in its issue of 15 February 1895 by “Free Lance”, entitled “Tempest and ‘The Maiden Tower’”. The story had an Irish/nautical theme:
Further down the same column we read:
From these passages it is clear that “my brown son” predates Ulysses by at least twenty years, and by 1895 was a familiar expression and perhaps even a catch-phrase itself, at least in Ireland. It may be found again in the Westmeath Examiner of 1909 (11 December, p. 9):
Although the expression is no longer familiar, it occurs as late as 1945 in another Irish publication, The Bell (Dublin: vol. 11, p. 575):
For how long has the simple expression “my son” itself been a familiar term of address?
As a term of address to someone who is not the speaker’s son, “my son” has been around for hundreds of years, though mainly in religious contexts. By the mid to late nineteenth century (at least) it appears in colloquial, non-religious exchanges:
At around the same time, according to the
great slang lexicographer Eric Partridge, the extended expression “old son” was
developing in Australia.1
So it appears that from at least the 1870s and 1880s there was a growing familiarity with the use of “son” in familiar terms of address, paving the way for “my brown son”.
The language of the music halls
“My brown son” is an unusual expression. In the late nineteenth century “brown” often connoted skin colour. The earliest reference to “my brown son” as a personal epithet dates from 1882. At that time it was the name of the stage character played by Fred Riley, a stalwart of the Britannia Music Hall in Eastbourne, Sussex.
Fred Riley was a singer and comedian whose act was not described as blackface, though the company included blackface minstrels. Fred was a popular member of the company, and had a long career in the provincial music halls. His character name “my brown son” was sometimes applied to him as a familiar epithet:
The popular stage and the music hall are strands which contribute strongly to Joyce’s descriptive vocabulary in Ulysses. Even if Riley is not originally responsible for the expression “my brown son”, he seems to have played a part in popularising it.
A second music-hall artist of the 1880 then enters the picture: Fred Percy. Fred Percy was a blackface comic and dancer, appearing as early as 1881 with the “Black Pearl Minstrels” around London and in the provinces.2 His profile was higher than that of Fred Riley, but he was not a household name. For at least fifteen years from 1885 Fred Percy appeared under the soubriquet of “The Old Brown Son”:
He toured extensively throughout mainland Britain, and although he may not have appeared in Dublin, he played in Belfast in 1887.3 Some people associated Percy’s “Old Brown Son” with Fred Riley’s character. In 1896, Fred Riley’s old expression is applied familiarly to Fred Percy:
Much of the language of the music halls would be regarded as offensive today, but at the time it contributed to an influential popular strand of English. After Bloomsday, but before the publication of Ulysses, Joyce is likely to have encountered another popular song of its day, “Wotcher My Old Brown Son”, performed from 1914 by the celebrated Cockney singer and comedian Harry Champion (best known for “Any Old Iron” and “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am”).4 Here, “my old brown son” simply has the meaning of a familiar friend – showing that a version of the old expression had been taken up generally as a catch-phrase. This was the version that occurs in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights (1916), one of the books in Joyce’s Trieste library:
Colloquial expressions cannot always be pinned down to a simple origin. “My brown son” was popularised, if not invented, in the London and provincial music halls. It was preceded by the emergence of “my son” and “my old son” as terms of familiar endearment, and is likely to owe something to the minstrel tradition of late nineteenth-century music hall. A parallel expression, “my old brown son”, existed alongside “my brown son” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though “my old brown son” received an enormous boost from Harry Champion’s song, and for a while was the better known of the two expressions. The apparently restriction of the expression in later years to Irish contexts is unusual but not unique – though there does not seem to be an underlying Irish expression which it translates.
Joyce collected many expressions from the music hall and the popular stage. It seems that “my brown son” is another of these.
Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang (ed. Paul Beale,
1984: p. 826/2): old son - My fine fellow; my dear chap: Aus.
coll., from ca. 1870; in C.20, also Brit. (B[arrère] & L[eland]) Sometimes my old son, and occ. my old brown son.
Joyce's Allusions >