meaning and origin of ‘belt and braces’–‘belt and suspenders’

illustration for The Latest Conceit is Combination of a Belt and Braces
from the Daily News (New York City, N.Y., USA)
Wednesday 16th May 1934

'belt and braces' - Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) - 16 May 1934

 

The phrase belt and braces denotes a double precautionary measure taken in order to decrease the likelihood of mishap.

The original image is of the pessimist who wears both a belt and braces to hold up his trousers.

The earliest instance of that image that I have found is from The Citizen (Gloucester, Gloucestershire, England) of Friday 26th August 1921—several British newspapers later reprinted this anecdote:

BISHOP DEFINES PESSIMIST.

The Bishop of St. Albans (Dr. Furse) was lately asked for a definition of a pessimist, and he replied: “A man who wears a belt as well as braces.”

The image often reappeared in the following years; for example, this is from The Northern Whig and Belfast Post (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland) of Friday 12th September 1924:

LORD DEWAR’S WIT.
Paradoxes of Public Opinion.

When handing over to the Lord Provost the deed of trust in favour of the town of Kinonull Hill, a famous landmark which overlooks the city of Perth and commands a view to the Tay valley, Lord Dewar* said that the man who paid the slightest attention to public opinion was reminiscent of the Darwinian hypothesis, and should at once see a mental specialist.
As they walked along life’s highway they would find public opinion was paradoxical at every turn, from the cradle to the grave.
When a child was born into the world everybody wanted to kiss him without his consent, and before he went out of the world many wanted to kick him.
If he did not succeed in his calling he was pronounced a failure.
If he made money he was called a profiteer.
If he went to church on Sunday he was a hypocrite; if didn’t he was a sinner.
If he gave, it was for advertisement; if he didn’t, he was stingy.
If he rode in a Rolls-Royce, he was extravagant and encouraging Socialism; if he rode in a Ford, he was a joke.
If he was a pessimist, he wore a belt as well as braces; if he was an optimist, he wore neither.

* Thomas Robert Dewar (1864-1930), 1st Baron Dewar, Scottish whisky distiller and politician

Likewise, in The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 21st April 1937, the clue to a nine-letter word in the crossword puzzle was—with and in italics:

Looks on dark side of things (probably wearing belt and braces) (9).

During a conference that he gave in Chicago, Illinois, USA, on Monday 30th March 1931, the English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy (1867-1933) appropriated and used figuratively the image of the pessimist wearing a belt as well as braces—as reported the following day by the Chicago Daily Tribune:

Earlier in the evening Mr. Galsworthy had defined a pessimist as “a man who wears both belt and braces.”
“The question of peace,” he said, “is a matter in which I am wearing both belt and braces. In 1931 not to believe in a league of peace for the world is to be a village idiot.”

Frank Murphy, one of the founders of Murphy Radio Limited, used the image as a term of comparison in an advertisement for the new Murphy radio set, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 30th August 1935:

Most of these features, I know, are claimed as current in some radio sets to-day. When I tell you that we have found it necessary to use eight valves to achieve these results when others say it can be done with four, you may say that we are like the pessimist who wore both a belt and braces to support his trousers. However, we continually find ourselves saying ‘the job must be right’, and only time will prove whether we are over-cautious in the means we use in endeavouring to make it so.

‘Man O’ Mendip’ also used the image as a term of comparison in one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column O’er Hill and Dale, in The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror (Bristol, England) of Saturday 20th September 1941:

The man who has both tractor and a team of good heavy draught horses is like a man who wears both belt and braces. The tractor is like the braces—best when it’s working well, but apt to lose buttons at moment of stress on the farm. A tractor with a part missing is no good for the autumn cultivations and ploughing when every day counts.

The earliest figurative use of belt and braces that I have found is from the column Topical Talk, by ‘Wayfarer’, in the Suffolk and Essex Free Press (Sudbury, Suffolk, England) of Thursday 5th August 1948; titled that day Yes, he was right, it was about the risk of an interruption of the water supply in Sudbury, due to the breakdown of the main electric pump:

On the way is a second electric pump to act as a standby.
When Councillor L. W. McQuhae, some time ago, pleaded for the purchase of this second electric pump, it was Councillor L. Alston, I think, who retorted that Mr. McQuhae evidently wanted a belt as well as braces.
The latter admitted this was so and argued that it was wise to ensure that there should be no breakdown in supply. How right he was, events proved.
[…]
So our water supply will soon be doubly secure—with ‘belt and braces.’
Pumps have played a big part in Sudbury’s affairs, one way or another. One has only to think back to the floods of 1947 to recall the desperate efforts that had to be made by the Fire Service to save the Sewage Pumping Station from being flooded. Inside was a newly installed automatic electric pump which had cost quite a lot of money. It was touch and go.
[…] The new pump proved a great saver of labour and expense; so much so, in fact, that another will be coming along—ready to take over and ensure that nothing goes down there—another instance of belt and braces.

 

The American-English synonym of the phrase belt and braces is belt and suspenders. For example, the above-mentioned anecdote about the Bishop of St. Albans appeared as follows in The Springfield Leader (Springfield, Missouri, USA) of Friday 7th October 1921:

The Bishop of Albans [sic] lately described the most dreary pessimist as the man who wears a belt as well as suspenders, remarks the London Post.

However, belt and suspenders were used in collocation before belt and braces were. The earliest instance that I have found is from The Sun (New York City, New York, USA) of Friday 12th July 1912—the title that the newspaper gave to the question posed by the reader provided the answer:

                                                            Doubly Safe.
To the Editor of The Sun—Can any of your readers inform me why some men wear both a belt and suspenders at the same time?
Baltimore, Md., July 11.                                                                                         Just Curious.

The following definition is from the column According to Uncle Abner, in The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) of Thursday 13th February 1913:

An optimist is a man who wears a belt and no suspenders.

The earliest figurative use of belt and suspenders that I have found is from the following about the Democratic Party, in the column Politics and People, by Harold H. Harris, published in the Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, New York, USA) of Wednesday 2nd April 1952:

One reason why Dem organization petitions stand up under legal sharpshooting is the “belt-and-suspender” technique employed by the George Rosling-Sidney Squire law team.

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