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In books by many different authors I encountered phrases like this:

He curses the brass for not caring whether he lives or dies.

From context, it seemed to me that it meant high-rank officers, about the rank of general. But sometimes it seems to mean lower (than general) rank commissioned officers, too. Sometimes civilian government officials overseeing army. So what does it really mean? And does it have anything to do with copper and zinc alloy?

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    I haven't met a mention of brass referring to lower-rank officers, but I guess the key here is that the word brass is used to refer to those who are higher in rank (relative to the speaker or to some other military man/men he mentions), who are more privileged due to their higher standing. – CowperKettle Jan 27 '15 at 12:53
  • @CopperKettle I meant lower than general, not lower that the one saying it. Clarified. – Mołot Jan 27 '15 at 12:55
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    We have "the brass" and "the top brass". – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jan 27 '15 at 13:06
  • @TRomano I've never seen "the top brass", but I wouldn't mind seeing it in answer. – Mołot Jan 27 '15 at 13:07
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    Molot - top brass might be U.S. slang; have a look. – J.R. Jan 27 '15 at 22:42
15

It's military slang for very high ranking officers. Even though these generals and commanders make all the most important decisions that affect the troops on the ground, the infantry soldiers will never meet them face-to-face. This means that it can feel like a big unseen force is controlling what they can and can't do, so whenever a decision reaches them they have to follow, they say it came 'from the brass'.

Even though a lieutenant is a commissioned officer, he wouldn't be referred to as 'the brass', as he's on or near the frontlines giving orders in person; if the soldiers object to an order they can talk to him. But if he receives an order from his boss, who received the order from his boss, there's no room for argument.

There's no specific rank it refers to, since it doesn't matter who it came from. The order has traveled down the chain of command until your commanding officer doesn't have the authority to let you raise objections.

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    Sorry, edits that change only one character are not permitted, but this should be "[...] decisions that affect the troops" (not effect). – Bruno Jan 28 '15 at 1:21
  • @Bruno - Changed as per your suggestion – Mark Jan 28 '15 at 10:05
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AMENDED:
For the military, brass means any officer who outranks the speaker: the people who make decisions which affect the speaker's life (usually with the suggestion that they don't much care how they affect the speaker's life).

(Civilians, however, generally use the term to refer to the upper echelons of command—"the brass in Saigon", for instance, during the Vietnam War.)

The term arises from the fact that in the US and English armies the primary insignia of rank for officers are pins on the collar, colored gold or silver but actually made of brass, while enlisted men wear shoulder patches of cloth and embroidery.

[http://www.army.mil/symbols/armyranks.html]:

              insignia

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    Good point with pins, good to know, but from what I've read "everybody who outranks the speaker" seems not to be exact. Last paragraph by Mark is more consistent with how I have seen the word used. – Mołot Jan 27 '15 at 13:25
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    I've heard brass refer to anyone higher than the recipient, not just very high. To a bunch of privates sitting in foxholes, who are getting dumb orders from their company commander (maybe a Captain) or their platoon leader (Lt of some sort), those lower level officers would be brass. To the company commander, a Captain, the brass would be up higher. So it can and is used for anyone who outranks the speaker. – chadbag Jan 27 '15 at 16:25
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    @Molot I think in the final analysis, 'brass' is used of anybody who issues chickenshit orders. – StoneyB Jan 27 '15 at 16:46
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    "Anybody who outranks the speaker" is a little generous. An O-1 doesn't generally call an O-2 the brass, for example. A more accurate way to say it might be: "any decision-maker at least two steps up your chain of command could be considered the brass." – J.R. Jan 27 '15 at 22:40
  • Definitely too generous. "Brass" is never used to describe non-commissioned officers in any context. In fact, I would expect some kind of punishment from (for example) a first sergeant who heard someone referring to him in this manner. There is a very discrete, absolute boundary between NCOs and commissioned officers. If you need evidence of this, call an NCO "sir" and you will almost assuredly get an "I work for a living" response. – L0j1k Jan 28 '15 at 19:11
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Brass refers to commissioned officers.

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    The briefest, and yet most accurate, answer. – Kevin Jan 27 '15 at 19:44
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    @Kevin - I agree it's the briefest, but I don't agree it's the most accurate. Fact is, brass can be used as slang for any "higher-ups" in any good-sized organization. Try doing a Google search on, say, "The brass at Apple" or, "The brass at GM". There's more to this than is said here. Even in the military, NCOs in many units would snicker at the idea of referring a lowly "butterbar" lieutenant as the brass unless it was uttered tongue-in-cheek. – J.R. Jan 27 '15 at 22:33
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    Having spent a number of years in the Marines, I can say this is a definitive answer. The question asked what it refers to in the context of the military. – Tass Jan 28 '15 at 1:00
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    @J.R. When I posted this comment, there were two other answers. One defines the brass as anyone who outranks you (wrong). The other said that Lieutenants were NCO's (also wrong). – Kevin Jan 28 '15 at 1:24
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    @Kevin - I think your comment, by itself, would lead the learner to beleive brass is a synonym for commissioned officers, and I don't think that paints the whole picture. Tass, I also have some military experience in my background, and stand by my clarifying comment. Brass for a 2nd Lt would be a stretch in many units; brass for an O-6 would not. – J.R. Jan 28 '15 at 9:39
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"The brass" refers to officers, and it's shorthand for the older phrase "the brass hats."

From the OED:

brass hat n. [so called from the gilt insignia on an officer's cap] colloq. (orig. Mil. slang) a high-ranking officer in the armed forces, originally in the British army; cf. tin hat n. 1b.

1887 Belfast News-let. 16 Mar. 7/4 Three officers..are to be tried by general court-martial for practical joking to a most unwarrantable extent with one of the brass hats of Dublin—we mean a staff officer.

4

Brass is a term used to denote officers, it comes from a time when enlisted personnel had cloth badges of rank, but officers had brass emblem (and had Batmen to polish them).

Top Brass refers to staff Officers (above brigadier), i.e did not directly command troops.

Hope this helps

3

I'm submitting a distilled version of something I said in comments on another answer. The "brass" when referring to military officers, only refers to commissioned officers, and never refers to non-commissioned officers in any context. Because of the absolute, discrete boundary that exists between NCOs and commissioned officers, I would expect a negative reaction out of a high-ranking enlisted person whom is called "brass" by lower enlisted (for the same reason you very often hear NCOs and NCO veterans reply to being called "sir" with "I'm not an officer, I work[ed] for a living").

"Brass" probably is best described as a placeholder term for commissioned officers above company-grade. More specifically, commissioned officers above company-grade who are issuing orders to the unit. Because there is often no direct benefit for the unit following the orders, this is sure to generate a lot of "because the brass says to do it" in response to questions about the orders which are a kind of "spukhaften fernwirkung". From my many years of experience as an enlisted infantryman, by far the most common place to find this term -- used in reference to officers, instead of the definition of an empty shell casing, which is correct but out of context -- is in this situation. Lower enlisted soldiers almost always question orders. It's just a natural human motivation to be curious about directives. And "brass" is most often used in response to these queries by NCOs or company-grade officers.

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"Brass to the grass" also refers to the proper loading alignment of U.S. military belt-fed machine guns. The individual rounds are linked together with dark colored clips that are stripped off as they enter the weapon. The clips are more visible on one side of the belt than the other. When loading the ammo can or feed mechanism, the side with the linking clips faces up and the other side where the brass shell casings are more visible face down, i.e. "brass to the grass."

1

Brass can refer to the ammunition shell that is ejected from a weapon after it has been fired. This was the first thing I thought of when I read the question since I'm uncertain as to whether the phrase is something the questioner came up with or if it was read somewhere. I was in the military as an enlisted person. Officers being referred to as Brass is something that I'm familiar with but more strongly related the reference to ammunition and not people.

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    The alternative meaning is worth mentioning, and I'm glad you did, but it doesn't fit in the context mentioned in the question. Would you add an example sentence to show how it's used in a sentence? – ColleenV Jan 28 '15 at 4:39
  • "Time to police up our brass, boys. Hands across the desert!" – L0j1k Jan 28 '15 at 22:08

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