"no strings attached"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed Apr 20 04:02:44 UTC 2005

I surely doubt it.

"No strings attached" in the usual application does not mean "without flaw"
or anything like that, it means "without obligation" ... I think.

Quick newspaper search shows ca. 1890-1900 several instances of "no strings
attached" referring to a person such as a politician: it would seem to mean
"independent" or "not bound by obligations". I suppose the metaphor may
involve a puppet with strings: the man without attached strings would be
one who is his own man, not the stooge of another (such as a financial
backer). A little after 1900 I see the expression applied to a gift or
offer rather than to a man: I suppose maybe the idea was that one could
make a gift to (e.g.) a politician without making any claim on him; i.e.,
accepting the gift would not cause him to come under the giver's control or
to become obligated to further the giver's interests. And that's about what
it means now, I believe. If it also refers to flaws in fabric either it's a
coincidence or the tailors etc. borrowed the phrase intact and used it with
a different meaning ... I think.

Like other "amazing but true" etymology tales, this one of course comes
without any paper trail or even any reasoning to convince the reader: it's
"self-evident" or "well-known", right?

-- Doug Wilson

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