Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Episode 125: Brass Tacks Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 125: Brass Tacks

Record Date: September 19, 2021

Air Date: September 22, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

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But back to the show!

This week I want to get down to the basic facts of online research. You might say I want to get down to brass tacks. The lack of citations on the internet is too damn high!


I don’t actually want to talk about memes like the too-damn-high guy. But I will express some frustrations about online citations, especially in word and phrase origin posts. Although, what I mainly want to talk about is our phrase, “Come down to Brass Tacks”.

I’m going to use a couple of different dictionaries for the phrase, but they all come down to the same concept. Brass Tacks - T A C K S - is another way of saying the most basic facts of a matter.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines our phrase as


Come Down to Brass Tacks, or Get Down to Brass Tacks,

to concern oneself with basic facts or realities

End quote

1897   H. A. Jones Liars i. 23   Come down to brass tacks. What's going to be the end of this?

1903   N.Y. Sun 28 Nov. 3   This bold sister was the get down to brass tacks in a discussion of the scandal.

1904   G. H. Lorimer Old Gorgon Graham 217   I cut it short there, and asked her to get down to brass tacks, as I was very busy.

1911   H. Quick Yellowstone Nights xi. 288   When you come down to brass nails.

1927   Daily Express 20 June 2 (advt.)    Let's get down to Brass Tacks.

1932   T. S. Eliot Sweeney Agonistes 25   That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks: Birth, and copulation, and death.

1953   L. A. G. Strong Personal Remarks 10   When we put theories aside, and come down to brass tacks.

Merriam Webster - a Dictionary I am personally angry with due to what I would call shoddy research in some of their internet posts - defines our phrase as such:


brass tacks plural noun: details of immediate practical importance —usually used in the phrase get down to brass tacks

End Quote

And one that I don’t usually include because they tend to use other idioms in their definitions, which isn’t great for non-native speakers, The Free Dictionary by Farlex, in their idioms section.


get down to brass tacks, to/let's

To arrive at the heart of the matter. 

End Quote

Shauna, any idea when this came into the English language?

First attestation

When I started researching this, the first attestation I saw was listed in the OED as 1897. I usually start my research with the OED online to give me a basic understanding of the etymology and some examples of uses. Then I turn to newspaper archives for the United States and the United Kingdom. I quickly found numerous sources where the figurative usage of brass tacks was in use prior to 1897. When I find the OED isn’t up to date with easily accessible information, I usually switch something that I do much later in the process: a quick Google Search to see what other sites have been saying about the origins. I found numerous websites, some rather well known, all using a citation from January 1863 out of a Texas newspaper, the Tri-Weekly Telegraph. And then they all used the same exact clip from the paper. 

Now this screams to me that most of these folks didn’t do any actual verification and are just trusting the person they copy and pasted it from. And since we have seen oh-so-many examples of this laziness result in inaccurate information, I set off to find a better citation for the source. I did find an archive of this newspaper from the University of North Texas library, so I started with the first edition of January and quickly decided this was gonna take a while. I remember emailing back and forth with Dr. David Wilton who runs the site about the phrase Bob’s Your Uncle and he was a stickler for verifying the source material. So I did a quick look at his site and sure enough he had mentioned Brass Tacks back in 2008 and included the date of the newspaper in question. So I went back to the UNT library and went straight to the source. And rather than the one small sentence that everyone else was quoting, I’ll give you the full paragraph. This is from a section titled “Brass Tacks”:


End quote

The images are in the show notes as well as a link to the website. And thank you Dr. Wilton for being meticulous with your citations and allowing me to independently verify the work. If you haven’t already, check out 

Okay… so we know the phrase was in use in the 1860s. But where does it come from?

There are a few origin stories out there, so let’s look at them and see how they stack up.

Brass Tax, T-A-X

This one is occasionally cited as a tax on brass goods. 

Gary Martin of the site notes:


There have been taxes on brass at various times, but no one can find any connection with this phrase. 'Getting down to brass tax' appears to be just a misspelling.

End Quote

Cockney rhyming slang?

Dr David Wilton, writing for notes:


It is commonly asserted that brass tacks is Cockney rhyming slang for facts. It definitely is not British in origin, but it could be rhyming slang other than Cockney. This, however, is complicated by the variant brass nails, which dates to at least 1911. The variant doesn’t fit the rhyming slang, but then it may have been an alteration by someone who didn’t understand the rhyming slang. In any case, the rhyming slang explanation doesn’t appear until the middle of the 20th century and may be an after-the-fact attempt to make sense of the phrase.

End Quote 

Furniture trade?

Back to Gary Martin


There's the use of brass-headed nails as fabric fixings in the furniture trade, chosen on account of their decorative appearance and imperviousness to rust. Such brass tacks were commonly used in Tudor furniture and long pre-date the use of the phrase, which would tend to argue against that usage as the origin - why wait hundreds of years and then coin the phrase from that source? The supporters of that idea say that, in order to re-upholster a chair, the upholsterer would need first to remove all the tacks and fabric coverings, thus getting down to the basic frame of the chair. While that is true, it hardly seems to match the meaning of the expression, as the tacks would be the first thing to be removed rather than the last.

End Quote

Coffin Nails?

So is there credibility in the brass tacks being associated with funerals? Sure. It makes sense if you don’t think about the brass tacks themselves literally, which idioms obviously don’t. But Anatoly Liberman, known as the Oxford Etymologist, writing for the Oxford University Press blog, writes:


Brass nails do have an association with coffins, and the variant of the idiom to get down to brass nails exists, but, … getting down to brass tacks is synonymous with getting down to bedrock or coming to the point, rather than putting the finishing touches.

End Quote 


Maybe the origin story with the least amount of argument is the clothing/sewing trade, known in British English as haberdashery. In American English that term is usually reserved for Mens clothing like suits, shirts, and neckties. But in British English it is a broader term. 

Here is a quick description by Dr. Wilton


Stores used to mark out a yard on the counter with brass tacks so that customers buying cloth could measure it by getting down to brass tacks and ensure they weren’t being cheated.

End Quote 

Gary Martin notes this reference:


In order to be more accurate than the rough-and-ready measuring of a yard of material by holding it out along an arm's length, cloth was measured between brass tacks which were set into a shop's counter. Such simple measuring devices were in use in the late 19th century, as is shown by this piece from Ernest Ingersoll's story The Metropolis of the Rocky Mountains, 1880:

"I hurried over to Seabright’s. There was a little square counter, heaped with calicoes and other gear, except a small space clear for measuring, with the yards tacked off with brass tacks."

End Quote

And this article from 1955 seems to agree...

One other consideration

After I had already written this entire episode I was still searching around to read more about the phrase. Never stop learning, right? Anyway, I ran across an article I hadn’t seen before, which made some interesting notes. It also had the full citation for the Tri-Weekly Telegraph along with the date, which would have saved me several hours. Anyway, It appears “come down to the brass” or “bring down to the brass” seems to have been in use in newspapers before we saw it being attached to tacks. As such, Pascal TrĂ©guer writing for word histories dot net provides a hypothesis that come down to brass tacks may simply be an expanded version of the phrase come down to the brass. 

Here is one example Pascal uses is from the Wisconsin State Journal out of Madison Wisconsin, April 21, 1854

The statement “to use an ordinary phrase” is what gets me here. It implies the phrase is in common use in this region and only bears mentioning because it isn’t something one would usually put in print. But it also isn’t considered obscene or anything. More likely considered slang. It deserves additional research. 

So are these two phrases connected? Was ‘down to brass’ always referring to brass tacks, or to something else? We just don’t know. But as we digitize more historical works and provide wide access to those collections, we may someday pin this one down. But until we can get this one down to brass tacks, we’ll just have to live with what we have. 

Before we get to how we see the phrase used today, we have a few sponsors to thank!

A Quick Thank You


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Modern Uses

Usually in this part of the show, we talk about music, books, and movies that use the phrase. But this week I found a slew of businesses that were using the phrase, so I wanted to share those with everyone. 

Brass Tacks Sandwiches - Oregon, USA

Brass Tacks Sandwiches is a woman-operated sandwich shop founded in Portland, Oregon's Boise Neighborhood in 2011. We're big believers in making food from scratch, and we offer a range of housemade vegan and gluten-free options along with responsibly-sourced meats. We source produce and other ingredients locally whenever we can, opt for organic or pesticide-free, and grow a lot in our own garden! We believe we have the best sandwiches in Portland, and they go great with our award-winning housemade pickles, incredible local beers, and our friendly, pun-loving staff.

Brass Tacks Coffee - Florida, USA

Brass Tacks Coffee was born inside our flagship cafe, Spring Park Coffee. Spring Park Coffee, inspired by the historic spring located in Green Cove Springs along the St. John's river, was opened late 2011. 

Early 2013 we bought a little roaster and started roasting for our Green Cove Springs cafe. Since then we have grown and improved a lot, but we have never lost sight of our original mission, to make great coffee more accessible.

How do you make great coffee more accessible?

For starters, you have to have friendly and approachable cafes and baristas. Second, you must follow that up with interesting and easy going menus and atmospheres. We have never lost sight of why we started roasting and serving coffee here in the most beautiful setting on the First Coast. Even though we love coffee very much, we don't make coffee for ourselves, we make it for you.

Brass Tacks Barber Shop - Texas, USA

Barbershops with focus on straight-razor shaves and traditional cuts. Listen to great music and enjoy a beer from a local brewery

They have a youtube channel, an instagram, facebook, and a tumblr account.

Brass Tacks - Texas, USA

Brass Tacks is an inspirational gathering place that blends work and life.

An old Texas saying we love is “let’s get down to brass tacks,” which means to focus on the essentials, the basics. That’s exactly what we have done, focus on the two basic parts of life-work and play. Many seek that perfect work-life balance, yet struggle to maintain it.

At Brass Tacks we passionately believe everyone should enjoy a work-life blend, where both worlds can seamlessly become one. So, we’ve built a space around that principle.

Here is my favorite part of the place - their email address is getdown@brasstackshouston, which is just a brilliant use of the phrase.

Brass Tracks (Band) Ohio, USA

America's only Chicago & More Tribute Show

“Nothing gets a crowd jumping like horn-driven rock 'n' roll and R & B, which makes Brass Tracks the perfect band...” -

Brass Tracks Band is an 8 pc. band featuring an amazing 3 pc. horn section. We kick off and end our Tribute Show performing Chicago's greatest hits with all of the iconic Horn Band  hits of the 60's, 70's, 80's and beyond sandwiched in between.

Wrap up...

While we may not know the origins of this phrase - or even if ‘tacks’ is part of the original phrase - we do know it is alive and well today. Most businesses use names that mean something to them. And getting to the heart of the matter, or the most fundamental element of the matter, is a concept that is as strong today as it has ever been. And I think that’s why it is so important to these and many other businesses. Because they are trying to be true to the core of what they do - by getting down to brass tacks.



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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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