by Henry Farrell on September 24, 2005

In my “post”: on Germany a couple of days ago, I coined what I thought was a neologism, “Frummagem.” It was supposed to be a “portmanteau word”:, combining the name of David Frum, “notorious”: for his pseudo-argument that the poor need a bit of Donner Party style privation to stiffen their moral backbones, with the word “brummagem”:, which means something shoddy, second-rate or counterfeit. Therefore, Frummagem: a shoddy and brutal argument for immiserating the poor, after the style of David Frum. To my surprise and delight, I discovered through Google that ‘frummagem’ is actually a real word in eighteenth century thieves’ cant. It “features”: in Richard Head’s contemporary compendium of canting slang, _The English Rogue_, which informs the reader that “frummagem” means to “choake.” Walter Scott uses ‘frummagem’d’ in his novel “Guy Mannering”: to “mean”: throttled or hanged. In short, a bit of thievish language with violent connotations. Sounds as though I wasn’t far off the mark.



Chris Bertram 09.24.05 at 10:03 am

Henry, you’re sure to offend some of our readers from England’s West Midlands. The sense you give to Brummagem is derivative. It is originally a slang or dialect term for the city of Birmingham. See “this Wikepedia”: page.


Henry 09.24.05 at 10:42 am

Although I presume Birmingham lost this reputation during the course of the 19th century, as it began to produce high quality goods. As did Germany (viz. the British term jerry-built, which persisted afik when German manufacturing quality far outmatched that of its UK competitors. It seems to be a fairly common phenomenon – didn’t “Made in Japan” connotate low quality in the 1950’s and 1960’s? As with Birmingham and Germany, the laugh was on those making the jibes. In any event, I of course have no desire to offend Brummies (is this a contraction of brummagem?; hadn’t thought of that), or to claim that a somewhat archaic term has any real relationship to the city of Birmingham. And if people are genuinely offended by the post (I’m not British so I don’t have a good sense as to whether this is really pejorative) I’ll take it down. I presume though, that “Frummagem” must have a similar origin. From public executions at a town called Framingham? Or Farmingham???


Gene O'Grady 09.24.05 at 10:52 am

Made in Japan goes back to the 20’s and 30’s; I have no idea what general Japanese goods of that period were like but the stuff imported to the US really was cheap. That may well have had more to do with US tariffs and import laws than with Japanese manufacturing. It may be recalled that after fairly good relations in the 1900-1925 (partly out of mutual antipathy to the Chinese and the Russians) US-Japanese relations went to hell after about 1925.

Now (once cheap) Japanese goods marked “Made in Occupied Japan” are collectors items in the US. Mass produced from cheap materials with quite a sense of style.


fjm 09.24.05 at 11:41 am

Btummagem-wear was *not* a term for shoddy or indifferent. In its heyday it referred to the wealth of china and small metal wear which came out of the workshops of Birmingham and the Midlands.

A good example of Brummagem-wear would have been Wedgewood.

Shoddy? I think not.

But I don’t expect you to remove the post, the sudden rush of blood pressure is probably good for me, and us Brummies know that all the sneering at Birmingham is just jealousy for our history as the home of municipal socialism, unsurpassed parks, wealth of small workshops and astounding regional art gallery and museum (which contains one of the best collections of craftware outside the V&A or the Chicago Art Institute).

(Farah, a Brummie by upbringing if not birth.)


Chris Bertram 09.24.05 at 12:10 pm

No of course you shouldn’t take it down Henry!

But as an English person the very first association I had was to Birmingham (yes, hence Brummies). I didn’t even know the “shoddy” sense until I read your post.


Alison 09.24.05 at 12:10 pm

I’m Brummagem bred and I am not offended by this post (phew).

BTW Doesn’t the vicar’s wife in ‘Emma’ make some disparaging remark about Birmingham? Mind, she was a bit of a cow.


jholbo 09.24.05 at 12:22 pm

Thanks Henry, frummagem goes in the lexicon, now with extra connotations. Now what’s a good word for neologisms that turn out, coincidentally, to be … paleologisms accidentally unearthed? Confluologisms?


Henry 09.24.05 at 12:39 pm

Farah – had vaguely been aware of Birmingham’s manufacturing prowess from Uglow’s _The Lunar Men_, which I really liked a lot – I thought it did a very good job of linking together personal lives, scientific ferment and the roots of the industrial revolution. So the pejorative use of brummagem never had any basis in fact? (by the way – are you Farah Mendelsohn the SF critic? It’s not a very common name)


fjm 09.24.05 at 12:59 pm

The Lunar Men is one of the best non-fic books I’ve ever read. Brummagem-ware (I misspelled it the first time) could be disparaging because it implied you couldn’t afford china from China but it was always a double edged insult. Brummagem-ware went down the canals to the ports and by the late 19th century was exported all over the world (including China). Edward James (sf critic) comes from a manufacturing family in Birmingham (his family had a building in the Silver quarter until about ten years ago) and I’ve seen buttons made by his family on Confederate Uniforms in a museum in Phildelphia.

One consequence of Birmingham’s status as the craft capital of Great Britain was that many of the radical Chartists came from there. Literacy seems to have been high, and there was a strong tradition of non-conformism. Too many people judge Brum by the 1970s when the entire city went under with the collapse of car manufacturing (a highly skilled job). It’s largely recovered now. Let me show you round it one day. It’s got some of the best Victorian architecture in the country, and I’m not kidding about the Parks. No Brummie is ever more than ten minutes walk from a park.

I am said Farah but it’s spelled “Mendlesohn”.


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 3:49 pm

Mr. Farrell, with all due respect: your repeated flogging of John Holbo’s silly and superficial hatchet job on Frum becomes a little more embarrassing with each repeat.

Conservatives of Frum’s stripe want people to bear the risks inherent in their own behavior, rather than palming their failures off on the general public, because that will encourage them to develop middle-class virtues like prudence, thrift, stoicism etc., which are essential to their own long-term, on-the-whole well-being, and to that of society as a whole.

In Holbo’s retelling, Frum wants people to suffer because that makes them timid and subservient – and conservatives, it seems, just prefer timid, subservient people.

But wanting people to suffer the consequences of the risks they take is not the same as wanting them to suffer, *tout court*. And timidity and subservience are not the same as prudence, thrift, stoicism etc. And a desire for the long-term, on-the-whole well-being of individuals and society is not the same as an (aesthetic?) preference for subservient timidity.

Quite the contrary, really.

In short, Holbo’s account is a ridiculous and malevolent caricature.

Now if you find ridiculous and malevolent caricatures of conservative thought amusing, fine. Whatever.

But the risk involved in taking them seriously is that you make *yourself* look ridiculous (and malevolent) to anyone who actually *understands* the positions in question.

Fortunately, there is no obvious way to palm *that* risk off on the government.


engels 09.24.05 at 4:14 pm

Conservatives of Frum’s stripe want people to bear the risks inherent in their own behavior

Sounds rather like Ned Flanders’ position in The Simpsons

Marge: I’m sure your insurance will cover the house.
Maude: Uh, well, no. Neddy doesn’t believe in insurance. He considers it a form of gambling.


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 5:55 pm

engels: anyone who pays for her or his own insurance is thereby bearing the risks inherent in her or his own behavior.

But please do go on believing in your cartoon effigies of conservative thought – if that’s what makes you happy.

Don’t interrupt your enjoyment on my account.


John Quiggin 09.24.05 at 6:08 pm

Off-topic, but Brummagem also appears as Rummidge in the novels of David Lodge.


mythago 09.24.05 at 6:18 pm

Conservatives of Frum’s stripe want people to bear the risks inherent in their own behavior

As well as risks that are not inherent in their own behavior, such as being born poor.


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 6:28 pm

mythago: can you support that claim with a citation to Frum’s book?


engels 09.24.05 at 6:34 pm

anyone who pays for her or his own insurance is thereby bearing the risks inherent in her or his own behavior

No, s/he is no longer bearing all of those risks: some of them have been transferred to the insurance company. Or do you have a more “unorthodox” definition of risk to the one I’m familiar with?


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 6:51 pm

engels: s/he is bearing the risks to precisely the extent that a conservative like Frum thinks s/he ought to.

Do you have some reason to believe that such a conservative wants her or him to bear more than that?

If not, what’s your point?


engels 09.24.05 at 7:17 pm

what’s your point?

My point is that both the statements you made of Frum’s position, which I quoted, are obviously false.

Firstly, you said

Conservatives of Frum’s stripe want people to bear the risks inherent in their own behavior

which is a position held by nobody except Ned Flanders.

You then said

anyone who pays for her or his own insurance is thereby bearing the risks inherent in her or his own behavior

which I pointed out is obviously false.

Now you qualify this by saying

s/he is bearing the risks to precisely the extent that a conservative like Frum thinks s/he ought to

but this yields the following general principle

Frum wants everyone to bear the risks inherent in her behaviour precisely to the extent that a conservative like Frum thinks she ought to.

which is circular.

I don’t pretend to have read Frum but you have provided no reason for me to believe, contra John Holbo, that he does have a coherent position. If you can come up with a statement of his position which is neither obviously false nor circular then perhaps we can continue the argument.


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 7:37 pm

engels: there is a significant difference between someone who pays for her or his own insurance and someone who has it paid for her or him by the government.

I would mark that difference by saying that the former is bearing her/his own risk while the latter is not.

That, and only that, is the sense in which Frum (and I) think that that people ought to “bear their own risk.”

Apparently you feel quite strongly that this is not an apt way to mark the distinction.

But nothing – I mean, really, *nothing*, hangs on the terminological point. If you would rather mark the distinction in some other way, please offer me a reasonable, non-contentious alternative phrase, and I will be happy to adopt it when attempting to communicate with you.

The serious substantive point here is that Ned Flander’s putative position is an absurd red herring that serves only to distract attention from Frum’s.

I hope that was not your purpose in bringing it up.


jholbo 09.24.05 at 7:43 pm

Steve, I think your argument is properly with Frum’s book, or Frum, rather than with Henry or my original post, or engels. I suggest you direct your complaints about how conservatives are being made to look silly to Frum.

He isn’t making the Ned Flanders point, but his point is equally odd. He is saying (if he is saying anything) that people ought be less well off, because it is character-building. And that capitalism fits with conservative traditionalism because it is an engine for the destruction of wealth (on the assumption that wealth that may cease to exist is worth less than wealth that won’t.) As I said in the post, it’s so odd that I don’t think Frum believes it. It’s an argument that dissolves on a moment’s examination, but it is Frum’s argument in the book.

If, on the other hand, you can point out how – in my two posts – I have misrepresented or distorted Frum’s writings, I am humbly amenable to correction. Your complaint was made by others and I tried to address it as best I could months and months ago.


engels 09.24.05 at 8:06 pm

Ok, Steve, I’ll repeat this one more time. You have so far made three attempts to state Frum’s position. The first was entirely equivalent to Ned Flanders’ “insurance is evil” (so pointing that out wasn’t a “red herring”, was it?).

The second involved ignoring the meaning of the English words “bear” and “risk”. This is not a matter of opinion: if you don’t believe me, look the words up.

The third was circular.

The problem, though, is not with your “terminology”. The problem is that you still haven’t explained what you think Frum means, in a way which is neither obviously false nor circular.

But I’ll try and help you out. Perhaps what you mean is:

Everyone should bear their own risks, unless they have enough money to pass those risks onto others

Any better?


jholbo 09.24.05 at 8:10 pm

OK, I’ll just add a bit more to be helpful. Steve writes: “there is a significant difference between someone who pays for her or his own insurance and someone who has it paid for her or him by the government.” There is a problem with this in that, since the government is funded by taxes and is the taxpayer’s government, it is ultimately the taxpayer who pays, not the government. The government becomes like a big insurance company. You pay your taxes – your premium – and you get coverage.

I think what bothers you about the government-as-insurance company model is not that it is benefiting citizens by lifting unwanted risk from their shoulders but because it has a double function. It also serves to progressively redistribute wealth. Poor people pay cheap premiums for quality coverage, rich people pay expensive premiums and don’t really need some of the coverage. (We are assuming, for argument purposes, that the programs are tolerably well-designed and efficient, since Frum’s argument is not against the possibility of that.) In my post I made a point of saying: we can have this argument about the justice of redistribution. But Frum says nothing about this issue in his book. His objection, officially, is that this model would lift unwanted risk. And this would damage character. (Again, I don’t think he believes it. It’s just his argument. That’s all.)


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 8:33 pm

Mr. Holbo:

Thank you for your remarks.

I have read your original piece more than once. I realize that you *think*, or at least *say* that you think, that Frum was “saying…that people ought to be less well off, because it is character-building.”

That much was clear.

What is not clear is *why* you believe this – because your piece utterly failed to build any sort of serious case for this interpretation.

Let me offer just one example:

You quoted Frum as follows:

“The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now?.”

You then paraphrased him like this:

“…the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundation is hereby laid for a desirable social order.”

Now, I’m sorry, but this is not serious criticism. It is grotesque parody. Struggling to hold one’s family together = a “cowed and subservient posture?” Clinging to working-class respectability = a “conformist crouch?”

And it’s all down hill from there. (Let’s not even get started on the attempt at an argument in the following few paragraphs – unless you really want to, of course).

I also realize that you *said*, “months and months ago,” that you were going to address the criticisms of (especially) Adam Stephanides, in the comments thread attached to your original post – but when did you ever actually do so?

Was there a later post that I missed? If so, could you give me the date? I would read it with the deepest interest.


jholbo 09.24.05 at 8:47 pm

Yes, there was a ‘part II’ here. I remember arguing with Stephanides but don’t recall, just right this second, exactly where. Maybe in comments to the second post. You can see for yourself.


engels 09.24.05 at 8:50 pm

Steve – You have made a lot of claims about what Frum’s argument isn’t. If you don’t think John Holbo is right, perhaps you could give us an idea of what you think it is?


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 8:53 pm

engels: it is not a point of pride for me to stand by any particular characterization of Frum’s position. If you think that my original attempt was equivalent to the Ned Flanders position, so be it. I will bear that in mind and try to come up with an alternative formulation when dealing with you.


But, so far, I must admit that I am baffled. It may be that Frum’s position is so far outside your conceptual repertoire that it is simply impossible to communicate it to you. Your suggested alternative, “everyone should bear their own risks, unless they have enough money to pass those risks onto others” is so far off base that I fear that may be the case.


engels 09.24.05 at 8:57 pm

Steve – You keep saying everyone is misrepresenting Frum’s position. Fine. So just tell us what you think it is. Or do we have to guess?


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 9:51 pm

Mr. Holbo: thank you for the link.

I encourage anyone interested to read both the original post and the follow-up, along with the attached comments threads. In both cases, Adam Stephanides’ objections strike me as conclusive. (And no, I am not him, and do not even know him).

The second post does not add any new textual evidence for the proffered interpretation of Frum’s position – but that doesn’t seem to have been the point.

Anyway, I doubt that anyone here is going to say anything that advances the discussion beyond the state of play at the end of the second thread. Certainly not me, tonight.

I will only note that there is something weirdly paradoxical about the idea that Frum ought to object to individuals buying their own insurance on the grounds that having it might lead them to act imprudently, when buying one’s own insurance is precisely the sort of prudent behavior that conservatives like Frum want to encourage. Is the prudent individual the one who insures himself against risk? Or the one who refuses to do so for fear that he might lose control of his own risky behavior? If there is a problem here, it is with the application of the concept of prudence to the case of insurance in general, and not Frum’s view in particular.


Steve Burton 09.24.05 at 9:56 pm

engels: early in the comments thread to Mr. Holbo’s follow-up post, a certain “baa” offers a summary of Frum’s position that may make more sense to you than anything I seem to be able to say. Enough.


Tim Worstall 09.25.05 at 4:56 am

Brummagen? Shoddy? I’ve always thought, with no proof of course, that it was a rather sneering reference to things that were mass manufactured. Rather an aristocratic “Good God, this stuff is no where near as good as hand made material by proper craftsmen, look, even the poor can afford it”.
Very little to do with the actual quality of the production and a great deal more to do with the social attitudes towards those displacing guild and craft made goods.


Henry 09.25.05 at 11:42 am

Farah, one of these days I’m likely to take you up on that offer (I hardly know Northern England at all) …


Kevin Donoghue 09.25.05 at 2:27 pm

A good example of Brummagem-wear would have been Wedgewood.

Shoddy? I think not.

That’s all very well, but have you bought any Waterford-Wedgewood shares in recent years? I reckon the directors ought to be frummagem’d.


fjm 09.27.05 at 2:11 am

Birmingham! The North! glurk…..

Birmingham is the Midlands. But I’ll happily take you on a tour of the north as well.

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