“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:
You were asking about the Maiden’s Tower. Thought you’d aknown all about it, my brown son; but the way they teach geography nowadays the growin’ generation wouldn’t know how to give the latitude and longitude of the nose on their face.
Further down the same column we read:
"Here, my brown son" – a favourite expression of his – "we may reach home right enough, but it’s better wait our chances alive than dead."
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):
Heffernan […] was stooped as if tying his boot. Witness said, “Hello, Joe,” and Heffernan replied, "Hello, my brown son, did you feed him yet" (a laugh). Witness explained that “feed him” referred to a jennet [= a mule] in the field which he (witness) had.
Although the expression is no longer familiar, it occurs as late as 1945 in another Irish publication, The Bell (Dublin: vol. 11, p. 575):
His greeting to everyone was "Ho! Ho! Me brown son! How’s the world treatin’ you?"
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:
"Look here, my son. A word in your ear." This word in my ear was a whispered request for a trifling loan of two shillings and sevenpence […] It was not the first time I had lent old Mac small sums of money.
Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine (1874), vol. 35 p. 434
At around the same time, according to the great slang lexicographer Eric Partridge, the extended expression “old son” was developing in Australia.1
Take my advice, old sons, only invest what you won't miss: be unprejudiced and listen not to tipsters who is wrapt up in the gang, whose business is to mislead the public that they be fleeced.
Queensland Figaro (Brisbane) (1884), 8 November, p. 3
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.
We, the Undersigned, wish to thank Mr. Hounsom, Proprietor, Britannia Music Hall, Eastbourne, for his kindness for paying in full all Artists Engaged on Good Friday Evening, the Hall being Closed. Signed […] J. P. Boston (Joe the Marine), Fred Riley (my Brown Son), H. A. Fry (Ye Yeoman), W. Yellop (the Gusher).
Era (1882), 15 April
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:
Mr. Fred. Riley […] To Mr Hounsoum [sic] for his gift of a valuable Watch suitably engraved. Thanking some Kangaroos, we part. After America, my brown son.
Era (1882), 15 July
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”:
The Old Brown Son.
Fred Percy, Delineator of Negro Life, has been causing a little harmless fun at the Gaiety, St. Helens, and will arrive per telegram at the Scotia, Glasgow, Monday next.
Era (1885), 11 July
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:
Wanted, Artistes in all Lines to know that although Mr Syd. Godfrey’s Loan Office has Closed, the Musical and Dramatic Agency […] is still Open and flourishing. Contracts await Charley Pastor, Mawson and Power, Lynn Guthrie Combe […] Also Fred Percy – I beg your pardon – my Brown Son.
Era (1896), 15 February
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:
That’s the style, me old brown son. Don’t try to come it with me – what?5
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.