Blame the brass?

中国日报网 2013-01-15 13:56



Blame the brass?

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence: “Johnson blames the brass for the company’s woes.” Blames the brass?

My comments:

In other words, he believes it’s the fault of the company’s bosses that has put the company in trouble at present.

Bosses, plural. That’s what “the brass” is about – all of them together, the management as a whole. And let me explain how “brass” comes to mean leading officials as a group.

Brass is the shiny golden (bright yellow, in fact) metal made from a mixture of copper and zinc. In the military of the UK or US, high ranking officers wear brass hats, that is, hats that have brass braids (narrow band) circling the edging on the top. This decoration is used to symbolize the importance of these ranking officials, as distinguished from ordinary soldiers, or the rank and file.

You must have heard of the phrase “rank and file”. “Rank” stands for the ranks, as in rise from the ranks, or the lowest ranks as a matter of fact. “File” stands for those without ranks at all, who are always seen walking in file, i.e. in a line, one behind another.

Anyways, since only high-ranking officials wear brass hats, the brass gradually becomes synonymous for these people. You also hear people talking about “the top brass”, that means officials at the very top. Same thing.

Not just militarily. These days “the brass” is used in any walk of life. In our example, the brass stands for the company’s bosses as a group, or management as a whole. When Johnson puts the blame on the brass, he means to say that decision-makers at the company are the culprits. In other words, rank and file workers at the assembly line are not at fault.

Alright, here are media examples:

1. Sprint Nextel is looking for replacements at the top of its corporate food chain.

On Thursday, the beleaguered wireless carrier said that three of its top execs, including Chief Financial Officer Paul Saleh, are leaving the company effective Friday. The company named Senior Vice President and Controller William Arendt as the interim CFO, while it searches for a permanent replacement.

Tim Kelly, chief marketing officer, and Mark Angelino, president of sales and distribution, are also stepping down.

Sprint has been in the process of reshaping its executive team for the past few months. Chief Executive Officer Gary Forsee was the first top executive to be forced out of the company in October. Dan Hesse, who had been the CEO of Embarq, a Sprint spin-off took over the top position in December.

This most recent executive shake-up comes a week after the company said it expects big losses in cell phone subscribers for the fourth quarter of 2007 when it reports earnings February 28. It also said that 2008’s outlook isn’t looking so good either.

In another effort to get the business back on track, Sprint said last week that it will cut 4,000 jobs and close about 8 percent of its retail stores – moves that should help cut costs between $700 million and $800 million a year, according to the company.

But job cuts won’t necessarily solve the company’s main problem, which is retaining cell phone subscribers. Last week, Sprint said that for the fourth quarter of 2007 it had lost a total of 683,000 post-paying subscribers and 202,000 pre-paying subscribers, ending 2007 with 53.8 million post-paying subscribers and 4.1 million pre-paying customers.

Meanwhile, AT&T, the largest wireless operator in the country, said Thursday that it added a record 2.68 million new mobile subscribers in the fourth quarter, bringing its total to 70.05 million mobile subscribers at the end of 2007.

Much of Sprint’s problems stem from the 2005 acquisition of Nextel Communications. Network integration of the two companies has not gone smoothly, and former Nextel customers have complained of worsening service. Investors have criticized the company’s top brass for not focusing enough attention on the core business.

In particular, critics are skeptical of Sprint’s plans to build a fourth generation using a technology called WiMax. Sprint has already committed to spending $5 billion on the network, which is expected to begin commercial roll-outs in the first half of the year.

Even though Sprint’s management has said it plans to continue to move forward with its WiMax plans, a new team in the executive suite could change the strategy dramatically.

- Sprint boots three more execs,, January 24, 2008.

2. Egypt’s military, the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel, is in decline, according to American diplomats, who blame the Arab nation’s top brass for failing to modernize and adapt to deal with new threats.

U.S. diplomatic memos leaked this month show previously unknown friction between the two allies over military assistance and strategy. Military cooperation has always been seen as an unshakable link between Egypt and the U.S., even as the political side of the alliance has gone through public ups and downs over Washington's on-and-off pressure on reform and human rights.

The disagreements, the memos show, are over a wide range of topics, with the U.S. pressing Egypt to focus its military toward terrorism, halting cross-border smuggling and helping out in regional crises. They also suggest that, to the dismay of the Americans, the Egyptian military continues to see Israel, its enemy in four wars spanning 25 years in the last century, as its primary adversary 31 years after the two neighbors signed a peace treaty.

“The United States has sought to interest the Egyptian military into expanding their mission in ways that reflect new regional and transnational security threats, such as piracy, border security, and counterterrorism,” said a memo dated Dec. 21, 2008, released by WikiLeaks.

“But the aging leadership, however, has resisted our efforts and remained satisfied with continuing to do what they have done for years: train for force-on-force warfare with a premium on grounds forces and armor.”

The memos exposed that public talk of shared goals between the U.S. and Egyptian military is just rhetoric, says Steven Cook, a fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a book on the Egyptian military.

“There doesn’t seem to be much more and there hasn’t been much for a while,” he said. “The U.S. criticism further reinforces what the Egyptian military is all about – the ultimate instrument of political control. They are not there to project power, but to protect the regime.”

- WikiLeaks show US frustrated with Egypt military, Associated Press, December 30, 2010.

3. Investigators issued a scathing report Friday that described a culture of brutality in Los Angeles County jails and criticized the Sheriff’s Department’s top brass for either being ignorant of deputies abusing inmates or tacitly allowing it to happen.

A spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca disputed the findings and insisted the jails have never been “out of control.”

Teams of lawyers working pro bono for the Commission on Jail Violence testified Friday the sheriff failed to rein in his own deputies.

“(Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department) personnel have used force against inmates when the force was either disproportionate to the threat posed, or when there was no threat at all,” said attorney Maurice Suh.

“These have included force against an inmate who is already restrained, or confined to a cell,” he added. “Force has been used against an inmate simply because an inmate questioned a particular action or deputy decision – for example, requested to take a shower.”

The last sentence prompted a vehement denial from Baca's spokesman, Steve Whitmore, who insisted, “That’s absolutely not true.”

“The sheriff has said he was unaware of some of the challenges in the jails but that doesn’t mean the jails are out of control,” he added. “They just never have been.”

Investigators laid part of the blame on Baca’s second-in-command, saying Undersheriff Paul Tanaka urged deputies to be “aggressive” by telling them to “function right on the edge of the line” and discouraged supervisors from investigating misconduct.

They also noted Tanaka vetoed an attempt to break up ganglike “deputy cliques” in Men’s Central Jail that were “highly resistant to supervision, committed acts of open insubordination, and sought to intimidate, bully and undermine supervisors whose policies they did not like.”

- Commission on Jail Violence finds brutality, abuse in Los Angeles County jails,, September 7, 2012.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


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(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)



















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