"Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Aug 8 20:33:43 UTC 2005

At 1:51 PM -0400 8/8/05, Michael McKernan wrote:
>Found this curious 'brass tacks' item, which seems to have some possibility
>(however faint) of being connected to the 'down to brass tacks' usage.  If
>so, it would add a somewhat different dimension to the concept of 'getting
>down to'.
>Arkansas City Traveler, November 16, 1881.
>The young man who came into our office the other evening, sat down in a
>chair, and then bounced up with a yell and fled like one
>bewitched, is requested to return four long brass tacks that were on the
>chair when he took his seat. No questions will be asked we
>understand it all; but we want those tacks we have use for them in our
>business. That chair is especially devoted to boys who not only read
>our exchanges, but make our office a regular loafing place, and the tacks
>are what we depend upon for excitement. Courant.
>Michael McKernan

Somehow "down to (the?) brass tacks" sidetracked me to another
curious (but non-rhyming-slang) expression, "down to the short
strokes" on which I recall an old Safire "On Language" column noting
how the vivid sexual allusion therein has long since been washed out
(as when congressional emissaries are described as being "down to the
short strokes" in finalizing the language of a bill).  Or in this
attestation from the web:  "As the federal government gets down to
the short strokes of deliberations on the 2003 budget..."

I thought I'd check to see what pops up on the web, and sure enough
the first site I find,
offers these true facts for the etymology:
Meaning:  Approaching the end of a long process.

Example:  Building a house is a long ordeal.   Just when you think
you are down to the short strokes something unexpected comes up.

Origin: When a golfer begins at the tee, he hits the ball towards the
green by driving, or using a long stroke.  When the ball is on the
green, he must get the ball in the hole by putting - or taking
"short" strokes.

A painter (canvases not houses) begins on a clean canvas using large
and broad strokes of the brush.   As the painting progresses the
brush strokes become shorter and finer as detail is filled into the
Another few web sites also proposed the golfer's (but not the
painter's) version, which in fact seems to be the majority view on
the web.  Given that the sport to which Safire referred has an even
longer history, and a more widespread clientele, than golf, I prefer
to regard his theory as correct (it's certainly more evocative).
I just Nexized the Safire reference I was recalling, and I excerpt it below:

The New York Times
January 11, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition
  SECTION: Section 6; Page 9, Column 1; Magazine Desk
  Let Us Distance Ourselves

Even though he had distanced himself from the Iranian dealings,
George Shultz used the phrase, shocking to some, in testimony to a
House committee on negotiations with the Soviet Union, in this
manner: ''Clearly, the negotiations were coming toward the short
strokes, and the Soviets were beginning to adjust their position. . .
.'' Howard J. Lewis of Bethesda, Md., is among the horrified readers
who writes: ''Is *short strokes* one of those figures of speech with
explicitly sexual origins that have inserted themselves into polite

Yes. In Francis Grose's 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar
Tongue, the word stroke is used as the noun object of the infinitive
in the archaic expression to take a stroke, which he defined as ''to
take a bout with a woman,'' which the Oxford English Dictionary
supplement explains is ''an act of copulation.''
The slang meaning of short strokes, unaccountably, is not defined in
the latest slang dictionaries. Nor is its obvious climactic etymon,
away from which I avert my eyes in shyness. The phrase is in frequent
use and has come to mean ''details'' [rhyming slang for "brass
nails"--LH] or ''finishing touches.''

  George Shultz has a natural linguistic innocence; a few years ago,
he blinked in wonderment at the snickering that followed his
assertion, of ''use it or lose it,'' the etymology of which was duly
recorded in this space. (I'm constantly picking up after the
Secretary.) The origin of that rhyming advice is not in academia or
the construction industry, nor is *toward the short strokes*. But
overt usage purifies, and common usage cleanses; the frequent
occurrence of short strokes in everyday colloquial speech, in print
and on the air, has all but obliterated the origin and made the phrase
  acceptable in polite company.
Of course, Grose is not referring specifically to the "short strokes"
metaphor.  Can anyone confirm the sexual (or, for that matter,
golfing) allusion?


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