Get Down to Brass Tacks (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Get Down to Brass Tacks"?

The term "get down to brass tacks" means to focus only on the basic facts.
Get Down to Brass Tacks (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • It's a long report, but when you get down to the brass tacks, it's a simple concept.
  • I've heard your mitigation, but let's get down to the brass tacks: you can't use that word to describe a work colleague.
  • We only have this room for another 15 minutes, so we need to get down to the brass tacks quickly.
  • Do not get down to the brass tacks of the deal too soon. The sheik will be offended if you don't spend some time talking about family.
This idiom originates from the cabinet-making industry and refers to the practice of stripping back a piece of upholstered furniture to the brass tacks that hold the fabric in place. Once a furniture restorer had got down to the brass tacks, they were looking at the basic frame of the furniture, i.e., dealing with just the bits that matter.

Competing Theory

"Get down to the brass tacks" comes from the haberdashery trade, where, for centuries, brass tacks have been nailed along the counter to help with measuring the length of cloth accurately. When measuring cloth, a measurement down to a brass tack would be accurate as opposed to guessed. It is a short mind leap from this notion to the idea of dealing with the actual facts and, subsequently, just the key facts.

Competing Theory

In the saying "get down to brass tacks," the term "brass tacks" is Cockney Rhyming Slang for "the facts." (Cockney Rhyming Slang was invented by the London criminal fraternity to prevent eavesdropping from the police or informers. Other examples are "apples and pears (stairs)" and "trouble and strife (wife)."

Detractors of this theory highlight that only the first word is said when speaking Cockney Rhyming Slang. For example:
  • I went up the apples and bumped into his trouble.
  • (This means "I went up the stairs and bumped into his wife.")
The detractors assert, therefore, for this theory to be right, the saying should be "get down to the brass."

"Get Down to Brass Tax"

There has never been a tax on brass. This is a misspelling of "tacks."

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See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

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