"no strings attached"

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Apr 21 05:36:52 UTC 2005

On Wed, 20 Apr 2005 00:02:44 -0400, Douglas G. Wilson <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:

>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).

Back to 1880 for that sense, in the form "no strings attached to (someone)":

1880 _Helena Independent_ (Montana) 20 Aug. 3/3 The Maginnis men are quiet
and confident, and have no strings attached to them, but support him
because he has been tried and proved himself to be a good Delegate.

>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.

For the form "no string attached to (something)":

1891 _Washington Post_ 12 Apr. 3/5 His resignation was still in the hands
of the President, and there was no string attached to it.
1892 _Chicago Tribune_ 26 Mar. 5/4 This pledge, he said, was made
unqualifiedly and with no string attached to it.

And for the bare idiomatic form "no strings attached":

1892 _Los Angeles Times_ 21 Aug. 6/2 In the meantime the demand for
proxies to the convention continues, and any one having such an article to
dispose of will have no trouble in having it taken care of, provided there
are no strings attached.
1897 _Washington Post_ 10 Feb. 6/3 He supposed $150 was to be given him
free, untrammeled, with no strings attached, and so got the checks cashed.

Certainly no hint of tailors in any of these cites.

--Ben Zimmer

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