"Use it or lose it" (was Re: "Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence)

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Tue Aug 9 01:51:58 UTC 2005

I first ran across this in an advice column by either Ann Landers or
Dear Abbie. I don't remember which one or the year, but it was in the
'50's(?). The subject was sexual activity between and among the
ummature. Part of the advice was directed toward men, that they should
"use it or lose it." I interpreted this to mean that, if men didn't
continue sexual activity through the golden years, they would find
themselves unnecessarily impotent, simply as a consequence of inaction.
That was pretty naughty for its time. Some papers refused to print that
particular column.

I can't provide a even a WAG as to whether this was the origin of the
phrase. I doubt it. But one never knows, do one?


On Aug 8, 2005, at 6:37 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM>
> Subject:      Re: "Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> Aren't "the short strokes" as likely to be onanistic as copulatory ?
> And what about a swimmer's strokes within a few feet of the end of the
> pool ?  I don't think we know the original reference with any
> certainty.
> And just what is the naughty origin of "use it or lose it" ?  I mean
> demonstrably.
> JL
> Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
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> Sender: American Dialect Society
> Poster: Laurence Horn
> Subject: Re: "Brass tacks" (1876) and etymological evidence
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> 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,
> http://members.aol.com/MorelandC/
> HaveOriginsData.htm#DownToTheShortStrokes,
> 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.
> Similarly,
> 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
> painting.
> ====================
> 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
> conversation?''
> 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?
> Larry
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