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The Oxford Etymologist gets down to brass tacks and tries to hit the nail on the head

I have always been interested in linguistic heavy metal. In the literature on English phrases, two “metal idioms” have attracted special attention: dead as a doornail and to get (come) down to brass tacks. The latter phrase has fared especially well; in recent years, several unexpected early examples of it have been unearthed. I say “unexpected,” because the examples turned up in obscure local newspapers, a repository of many language nuggets buried with little hope of resurrection (I’ll return to the burial metaphor at the end of the post) and because those working on the first volume of the OED (1884) did not have a single citation of the phrase. In the First Supplement, the earliest one goes back to 1903, but now we have examples dated to 1863. The feeling has always been that to get down to brass tacks is an American coinage, and indeed it first surfaced in print in Texas. As we will see, some other evidence also points in the direction of the United States.

We hardly ever speak about brass tacks, so why did they achieve such prominence? Who and in what industries gets down to them? Some hypotheses are rather ingenious, but below I’ll mention only two of them. The others are “a click away,” as they now say. Unless an idiom happens to be a so-called familiar quotation, its origin is usually unknown. (The origin of familiar quotations is another problem.) Somebody whips the cat, takes care of the whole nine yards, is dressed up to the nines, or, conversely, kicks the bucket. Trying to guess how those phrases came about is a worthy occupation, but, unfortunately, it seldom results in significant discoveries. Suffice it to say that every idiom, like every word, was once coined by an individual. The cleverest and the most memorable words and phrases stayed, and now they are common property, while the inventors’ names are forgotten. My contribution today will be modest. In 1931, there was a lively discussion of the brass tacks idiom in Notes and Queries, and, since not everybody has looked through the entire set of that delightful old periodical (at present it has quite a different format), I’ll recount the most salient moments of the exchange with minimal commentary.

In recent history, the phrase spread to England from overseas. However, it took quite some time even for Americans to learn it. In his novel Jennie Gerhardt (1911), Theodore Dreiser still used it in quotes (“It was like his brother to come down to ‘brass tacks’. If Lester were only as cautious as he was straightforward and direct, what a man he would be!” Chapter 43). Also, though everything points to the United States as the idiom’s home, and now, after the most recent discoveries, we find ourselves in Texas, it lacks a specifically Texan flavor (or so it seems). What then is “American” about it?

George Horace Lorimer, author and the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. His epistolary novels were popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
George Horace Lorimer, author and the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. His epistolary novels were popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

All the contributors to the discussion were speakers of British English. One insisted that the correct form of the idiom is let us get down to tin-tacks and believed that it was “like many other war-time phrases.” He obviously thought that he was dealing with military slang traceable to World War I (the Great War). The next discussant (a captain) agreed: “The army humour lies in calling common tin tacks ‘brass’, intimating they were of a special kind.” The exchange began to gain its own momentum: a wrong premise acquired pseudo-solid confirmation. This should teach all of us to be careful in dealing with language history. However, the man was rebuffed. His opponent quoted a 1904 example, which can now be found in the OED (from Horace Lorimer’s book Old Gorgon Graham). So the military cookie crumbled almost at once. Yet the brave captain did not surrender, and what he said may be of some interest. The phrase get down to brass tin tacks, he explained, “was undeniably in everyday use in the British army between 1914 and 1920.” And he insisted that only with tin and brass in modifying tacks does the idiom make sense. “Brass, or bronze, tacks, used in boat-building, do not rust, and are far superior to so-called ‘tin’ tacks for durability. Common ‘tin’ tacks appear to have not even a nodding acquaintance with tin, and are apparently made of galvanized iron.”

This statement was followed by a useful addition. After the suggestion that “[a] brass tin-tack would be possible, however paradoxical the name, and an enduring kind; though doubtless army users liked the phrase for its apparent absurdity” (beware of those who use the adverb doubtless), the writer noted that in the United States he had only heard the simple get down to brass tacks and also “a kindred saying” hungry enough to eat brass tacks. I wonder: Did those who opened Brass Tacks Sandwiches in Oregon and invented the name of the establishment allude only to the voracious appetite of their customers, or did they know the idiom about being hungry enough to eat brass tacks? Most likely, it is a coincidence. I have not been able to find examples of the phrase about hunger and brass tacks and have no information about its possible currency in today’s America English (my expertise is limited to being able to eat a horse). Members of the American Dialect Society will doubtless have better luck. In any case, if at some time brass tacks existed as a model of something truly solid, our popular idiom loses part of its mystery, and there is no need to refer to the occupations in which people dealt with those implements. This is my only and most important conclusion.

Getting up and down to brass tacks.
Getting up and down to brass tacks.

From the subsequent discussion in Notes and Queries we learn that, according to Hardware Trade Journal (has it been excerpted for the OED?), the most common expression is tin tacks, which is a “corruption” of tinned tacks. “There are also ‘Blued Tacks’ and copper tacks, but no brass tacks. A search through invoices back to 1878 and through very old catalogues fails to disclose a single brass tack.” Does this mean that in the United States brass tacks rather than tin tacks were especially common? What is known about the use of American brass tacks in the eighteen-sixties and before? Perhaps those who searched for the origin of the idiom did not pay enough attention to the object that has brought it into prominence. I never stop repeating that a student of words should pay equal attention to things.

In 1927 Frank H. Vizetelly, Managing Editor of Funk and Wagnall’s New Standard Dictionary (his name has already turned up in this blog: see “Jes’ copasetic, boss,” for 5 July 2006) wrote to a correspondent of Notes and Queries that the origin of the idiom had not been discovered and cited two explanations. One is familiar from the current discussion on the Internet, namely that in the upholstery trade brass tacks hold a protective leather band in place on a chair; driving them is one of the last finishing touches. According to the other one, “brass tacks, being the last decoration that is put round a coffin, when a man gets down to brass tacks, he faces conditions as they are.” Brass nails do have an association with coffins, and the variant of the idiom to get down to brass nails exists, but, as has been observed, getting down to brass tacks is synonymous with getting down to bedrock or coming to the point, rather than putting the finishing touches. The last participant in the discussion wrote: “Before guessing at the origin, it would seem advisable to make certain what the phrase really does mean: and whether it has, or has had, more than one meaning.” This is what I call getting down to brass tacks.

Image credits: (1) Chair. © sag29 via iStock. (2) George Horace Lorimer, half-length portrait, seated, 1922. Photo by Ellis. Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    An earlier quotation:
    “Mr H H GRAY said, we have talked all around the question, and he thought it was time to come right down to the brass.”
    Transcript [accurate?] of a session on Wed. am, Jan. 27, 1858.
    Headline: [No Headline]; Article Type: Legislative Acts/Legal Proceedings
    Paper: Weekly Wisconsin Patriot, published as The Weekly Wisconsin Patriot; Date: 01-30-1858; Volume: 4; Issue: 35; Page: [2] col. 4 Location: Madison, Wisconsin.
    The earliest reported use of “down to brass tacks” is Jan. 1863. Other early uses are legislative, too.

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  4. Cecil

    I just learned that “brass tacks” is actually the Cockney rhyming slang for “facts.” Given that the words used in most Cockney rhymes are not actually related to their real meanings (since they were used to disguise what the conversation was actually about), could it be that “brass tacks” simply means “facts” and we have this phrase because of the slang? Thus the phrase is simply… “Let’s get down to the facts.”

    Just a thought.

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