What Does Brown-Noser Mean?

Have you ever heard someone described as a brown-noser and wondered what the term meant? Here, we’ll explore its definition. Hint: It’s not a very nice thing to be called. Read on.

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What Does Brown-Noser Mean?

A brown-noser is a person who tries very hard to please and earn the approval of someone—usually somebody in a higher, more powerful position than them—in order to benefit themselves in some way. How do they try to curry favor? Typically through flattery and abject subservience, and by fawning over this person at every opportunity. A brown-noser’s behavior in order to gain a superior’s attention and support could be described as “shameless.” In other words, others may find their actions unpleasant and may be made uncomfortable by them. Put simply, a brown-noser tries to “butter another person up” or ingratiate themselves to them, through favors and compliments, in order to get what they want. 

Here are some example sentences using the term brown-noser:

  • My coworker, Kim, is such a brown-noser, always agreeing with our boss, complimenting her outfits, and bringing her sweet treats. It makes me sick!
  • I’m not doing well in my college math class. Guess I’ll need to become a brown-noser so my professor will pass me.
  • My boyfriend was such a brown-noser tonight: He brought home roses and chocolate in hopes of getting me to agree to letting him go to Vegas with his buddies.
  • That lobbyist is the biggest brown-noser, always doing all kinds of favors for the candidates so they’ll support his organization.
  • Jenny is the new teacher’s pet; I guess being a brown-noser paid off.

In these instances, we’re using the noun brown-noser. Various verb forms also exist: A brown-noser is a person who does a lot of brown-nosing or who brown-noses; they can also brown-nose or be said to have brown-nosed someone.

You will often see these terms hyphenated as compound words (more below), but you may also see them written as one word, such as brownnoser and brownnosing.

The Crude Origins of the Term Brown-Noser

According to Merriam-Webster, brown-noser dates to 1938. The term is said to have originated as military slang, from the idea that servility is the equivalent of having your nose up the less-than-clean backside of a person in a superior position to you, who could help you advance. Pretty gross imagery, right?

Yet, despite its crude origins, and although it is a disparaging expression, brown-noser isn’t considered especially vulgar today. However, it is still a very colloquial and slang term. In other words, you wouldn’t want to use it in a formal essay.

Brown-noser likely spawned the similar expressions kiss ass, ass-kisser, and ass-kissing; the latter, specifically, is said to have first been used in 1942.

Note: Brown-noser isn’t the only common saying with a military origin: Read about the term no quarter.

Idiomatic and Slang Expressions

Brown-noser can be considered both an idiom and slang.

Slang is a very informal type of language. Typically, slang words and phrases are more often spoken than written, and they may be more commonly used by a particular group of people or in specific settings. (As mentioned above, brown-noser likely originated amongst military members in a military setting.) In slang, words with one definition may be arbitrarily assigned a different definition. For example, tea is a slang word for gossip, and dough is a slang term for money

The term is also considered an idiom. An idiom is an expression that’s intended meaning can’t fully be deduced just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Like slang words, idioms are often conversational and informal. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. 

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done. 

Although the term originated from the idea of a person actually having a brown nose due to an unsavory act, it does not literally mean a person’s nose is brown. Rather, it is used figuratively to describe someone who behaves overly friendly or fawns over another for personal gain.

Discover the meanings of many more idioms herelearn more about slang here.

What Is a Compound Word?

Brown-noser is also a compound word. A compound word, or a compound, is formed when two words are combined and used together to create a new term with a new meaning, one that’s distinct from the definitions of the individual words. As you’ve already discovered, in text, compound words can be joined with a hyphen (known as hyphenated compounds) or be written as one word (called closed compounds). They can also remain written as two words yet still be considered a compound because they are used so often together (known grammatically as open compounds); for example: chocolate bar and dining room. Occasionally, a compound can be formed by more than two words, as in father-in-law

Compound words new to the lexicon are usually initially written as two words, and once they become more common, then often begin being hyphenated. As these compound words are used even more frequently and gain in popularity, they may evolve from being written as two words or with a hyphen to being written as one word.

Synonyms for Brown-Noser

If you want to describe someone who is using flattery, excessive praise, and compliments to gain favor with someone, there are a variety of additional words to choose from. A thesaurus will turn up even more synonyms for brown-noser

Summary

Brown-noser is used to describe someone who flatters or performs favors for someone (usually in a superior position) in hopes of getting something in return. In other words, they’re nice, and in an obsequious manner, for their own personal gain. Often a brown-noser tries so hard to earn someone’s approval that it makes other people uncomfortable. The idiom and compound word is said to have originated as military slang, and to be derived from the idea of someone in a servile position having their nose in the arse of the person above them. Although it has crass origins, it’s not thought of as a particularly vulgar term today. That said, it does have a negative connotation and is used disparagingly as an insult.