"Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Aug 6 21:51:51 UTC 2005

Here are the earliest instances of "brass tacks" ('non-literal') which I've


_Atlanta Constitution_, 5 April 1876: p. 1:

<<The grand jury of the United States court was kept down to brass tacks
yesterday, and from all accounts got in a full day's work.>>


_Atlanta Constitution_, 13 June 1876: p. 2:

<<WHAT do the "circulaire" folks mean by such expressions as "fairly
nominated," "properly tendered" and "a fair deal?" Do they mean to bolt if
thei[r] man is not the chosen one? Co[me] now, this is a better time to get
down to brass tacks than after the convention.>>


Here is an early example of "brass tacks" used in a simile. If this simile
was appropriate, presumably a corresponding metaphor was also possible,
with "brass tacks" standing for "exactitudes" or so. This would lend
support to the theory that the original reference was to tacks used in
measuring yard goods.


_Atchison Globe_ (Atchison KS), 3 May 1883 [at N'archive: date not on page
but contents compatible with date]: p. 3(?):

<<That temperance is to be suspected which leaves the head and heart at
last formal and exact, like two brass tacks in a dry goods store counter,
between which everything is measured off in yards, and often scant yards,


As is often the case, this item (or even many other similar ones, should
they be found) may not be fully conclusive, since 'reanalyses' and 'folk
etymologies' spring up like mushrooms sometimes. Still ....

-- Doug Wilson

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