"Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Aug 7 20:10:45 UTC 2005

Gerald Cohen wrote:

>Hmmm. Very interesting. "Brass tacks" is supposed to be rhyming slang
>for "facts"; hence "get down to brass tacks." But then why do the
>dictionaries say that this expression started in the U.S.? Why not in
>the speech of Cockneys?

Jonathan Lighter wrote:

>"Brass tacks" < "facts" has always struck me as a SWAG, since "brass
>tacks" never seems to denote "facts."
>* Sluggo ! I want an Extra !  Get the brass tacks on the Canary murder
>case !
>I don't think so...

Richard Lederer in _A Man Of My Words_ claims that "get the brass tacks"
actually exists in Cockney rhyming slang:

In _Be sure to get the brass tacks_, _tacks_ stands for facts, leading
some word sleuths to deduce cockney as the source of the cliche "Let's get
down to brass tacks."

I've never seen any attestations for "get the brass tacks", however.

So how did the rhyming-slang explanation first come about? One possible
contributing factor is that "brass tacks" has occasionally been paired
with "cold/hard facts":

Atlanta Constitution, Oct 15, 1902, p. 6/3
Senator Foraker is not roaring in his usual fashion this season. The
people are holding him down to brass tacks and cold facts, and that always
gives his eloquence hip disease.
Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1906, p. 3/2
Both verge on the socialistic to an alarming degree, but it is worth while
to notice that a good many democrats nowadays are talking about government
ownership in a vague sort of way, somewhat as Mayor Dunne ambles along
with municipal ownership, without ever getting down to brass tacks and
hard facts.
The Landmark (Statesville, NC), June 30, 1924, p. 5
(advt. for Nicholson Furniture Co.)
Cold facts and brass tacks. Never before have we resorted to strong-arm
methods, but Must is Master Now. Here is the story in a nutshell: We have
too much merchandise; we need the room and can use the money!

--Ben Zimmer

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