"Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon Aug 8 05:53:57 UTC 2005

>'Brass tacks' has an "Americanism star" in Webster's New World, so I
>suspect it's found in Mathews' Dict of Americanisms. (Mathews was a
>consultant on the 2nd edition of the New World Dict, published in
>1970, which introduced the star feature to identify words and senses
>originating in the U.S.  Mathews joined the NW staff in 1955 as
>special consulting editor and editor for Americanisms.)  I don't have
>easy access to my copy of Mathews (it's packed in a box somewhere), so
>can't check his citational evidence.  Maybe someone else can?

My copy of Mathews shows "_To get down to brass tacks, nails_, to get down
to fundamentals". With "tacks" from 1903, with "nails" from 1911.

>Incidentally, it is related to facts, as in "basic facts or details",
>so a rhyming slang origin doesn't seem out of the question,
>semantically speaking ....

I agree it's a reasonable speculation.

Chapman's slang dictionary prefers the dry-goods-measuring story.

Incidentally, "down to brass tacks" was also used (pre-1900) to mean
"rock-bottom"/"as low as possible": e.g., a store would advertise prices
which were "down to brass tacks". I believe "down to bedrock" and "down to
hardpan" also slopped over into both semantic areas.

-- Doug Wilson

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