This Is Why People Say “Brass Tacks”
Honestly, when was the last time you saw a tack made of brass?
When was the last time you used a brass tack? Or even saw one? Probably not recently. So it’s kind of odd that “get down to brass tacks” has become the go-to idiom for cutting through the superfluous and focusing on what’s essential. Are brass tacks really that fundamental? Where does this expression even come from?
The phrase first appeared in the late 1800s, but its precise origins remain in dispute. Some argue it refers to the brass tacks used in upholstery, which would help explain how the phrase could come to mean cutting through the surface to the most essential aspects of something. It may have grown out of the fact that when reupholstering furniture, the upholsterer would have to remove the fabric covering and tacks to get to the frame of the chair.
Another popular theory is that the phrase is Cockney rhyming slang for “facts.” This form of English, which originated in London’s East End, would obscure the meaning of a sentence by swapping in phrases or words in the place of words with which they rhymed (e.g. “queen” would be “baked bean” and “pub” would be “rub-a-dub-dub”). So, when someone wanted to skip the pleasantries and get down to the facts, they may have opted to say “brass tacks” instead.
According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, it could also allude to “tacks hammered into a sales counter to indicate precise measuring points.”
However it actually originated, it took time for it to be adopted by Americans from the English. As Anatoly Liberman, author of Word Origins and How We Know Them, points out in a blog post for the Oxford University Press, Theodore Dreiser was still using the expression in quotes in his 1911 novel Jennie Gerhardt, writing, “It was like his brother to come down to ‘brass tacks.’”
Liberman refers to the discussion of the term in the scholarly journal Notes and Queries, in which one contributor suggested it grew out of the British term “get down to tin-tacks.”
“Does this mean that in the United States brass tacks rather than tin tacks were especially common?” he asks. “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.”
However it came to the U.S., by the late 1920s, it was widespread. For example, T.S. Eliot used the expression in his 1926 Sweeney Agonistes: “That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks: Birth, and copulation, and death.”
The term is similar a number of other expressions that get at the same idea, such as “get down to bedrock,” referring to the hard rock underneath the soil—used since about 1850 and specifically as an allusion to the “bottom” of something since about 1860.
A more recent idiomatic “bottom” that can take the place of “brass tacks” is “nitty gritty,” a noun which came into use around the mid-1990s. According to the Dictionary of Idioms, it “alludes to the detailed (‘nitty’) and possibly unpleasant (‘gritty’) issue in question.” And for more facts we bet you don’t know, here are 33 Obscure Facts That Will Make You Come Off as a Total Genius.
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