Brass tacks

“Speak no nonsense” is the important one.

Dear Word Detective:  Let’s get down to brass tacks … or is it “brass tax”? Where does this term come from? — Matthew Cary.

Gee, that time already? This question is one of the hardy perennials of the word-origin-answering business, and about every fifteen years I take another stab at it (which is to say that this is exactly the second time I’ve tackled it, the first being in 1998). But it set me to wondering when I last saw anything (apart from screws, etc.) actually made of brass (which is an alloy of copper and zinc notable for its rich yellowish sheen). I had a little cannon made of brass when I was a kid (henceforth to be known as “Roseboom”), and the replacement faucets I installed in our ancient shower last year were made of brass (and cost nearly $100 a pair), but most of the metal you meet these days is either low-grade steel or some weird ugly aluminum alloy. But brass is cool. Brass has heft. Brass is permanent. Bring back brass! Fun fact: our word “brass” comes from the Old English “braes,” but the metal it referred to at that time was actually the alloy of copper and tin we now call “bronze.”

The durability of brass has long made it a popular metaphor for personal fortitude, although not always in a positive direction. Since the late 16th century, “brass” has been used figuratively to mean “courage,” “boldness,” and especially “impudence” or “shamelessness” (“I entered the Room without astonishing the Company by my Brass,” 1740), and “bold as brass” has meant “impudent” since the late 18th century.

Incidentally, if I may digress for a moment, the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” almost certainly refers to the “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil” kitschy brass monkey statuettes popular as home decorations in the 1800s, and not to an imaginary contraption called a “monkey” that supposedly held cannonballs on a Royal Navy warship. Comparisons involving heat and brass monkeys were also common at that time (“Under a sun which, as Shorty said, ‘was hot enough to melt the nose [off] a brass monkey’.” Omoo, Herman Melville, 1847). Sorry to rant, but that stupid story about the cannonballs drives me (and Roseboom) crazy.

To “get down to brass tacks” has meant “to deal with basic questions; to face the facts and deal with reality” since the early 1860s (“This bold sister was the first … to get down to brass tacks in a discussion of the scandal…” 1903). There have been a range of theories proposed to explain the connection between “brass tacks” and unvarnished truth, such as one tracing it to the unpleasant chore of reupholstering a chair or sofa, a fairly arduous process that requires removing the brass tacks holding the fabric to the frame. A more plausible theory traces the phrase to the old general store of 19th century America, where a line of brass tacks (or nails) were set into the counter (usually a foot apart) to aid in measuring fabric or other materials to be cut. Thus, to “get down to brass tacks” would be to finally pick a fabric from among those in stock and have it measured and cut for purchase. This theory has the advantage of being rooted in what was a very common practice at the time, as well as being a plausible match for the sense of the phrase.

One other intriguing theory, however, suggests that “brass tacks” is actually Cockney rhyming slang. Rhyming slang, originally a “secret language” of the London criminal underworld, uses unrelated words and phrases (“trouble and strife”) to stand in for the word actually meant (in this classic example, “wife”). “Brass tacks,” in this theory, stands for “facts,” which makes perfect sense, but there is a problem. “Get down to brass tacks” is almost certainly a US coinage (it seems to have originated in Texas, in fact), and rhyming slang has never been very popular in the US. On the other hand, the near-perfect rhyme of “tacks” and “facts” is a heck of a coincidence if it isn’t rhyming slang. In any case, the jury is still out on “brass tacks,” though I tend to favor the “general store” theory.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page