"no strings attached"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Apr 21 01:44:15 UTC 2005

At 12:02 AM -0400 4/20/05, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>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.
There's also a nice intentional exploitation of another ambiguity (or
underspecification) in "no strings".  Richard Rodgers (sans Hart or
Hammerstein) adapted it for the title and title song of his solo and
underappreciated Broadway musical starring Diahann Carroll back in
the early 1960's about an interracial love affair.  The title applied
both to what the partners agreed would characterize their
relationship (of course, it ended up more complicated and painful
than they'd planned) and, of course, to the fact that the orchestra
contained woodwinds, brass, percussion, etc., but no strings.  Clever
(if hyperdifficult) man, that Rodgers.


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