"lead pipe cinch" and plumbers 1893

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Jun 13 19:38:35 UTC 2004

>Several World Wide Words subscribers have asserted that there was a
>device that acted like a wrench to hold lead pipe, but using a fabric
>strap to avoid crushing or scratching the soft material (it was named
>by one writer as a strap wrench) and that this was in fact the lead
>pipe cinch of the expression. I found no examples of "pipe cinch"
>(which might have resulted in the  compound "lead pipe-cinch" being
>reanalysed as "lead-pipe cinch") or any citation that suggested a
>link between plumbing and cinches.

Certainly there are and were strap wrenches. I do not know that any were
called cinches. My newspaper search did not turn up such a thing.

Even if there was a tool or connection called a "lead pipe cinch", what
would connect it semantically with a "sure bet" or "easy task"?

I see several possibilities for the "lead pipe".


"Stealing lead pipe" may have been a figure of speech like "taking candy
from a baby". I mentioned this just today on this list.

Pro: There is a supporting citation (1887).

Con: I've found only the one supporting citation.


HDAS quotes an old slang dictionary giving "grapevine cinch" as an
equivalent of "lead-pipe cinch". "Grapevine cinch" looks transparent: the
inside information obtained through the "grapevine" assures that the bet is
a sure thing. Perhaps "lead pipe" is analogous to "grapevine", but how? I
doubt any horses were cinched with grapevine, nor with lead pipe.

"Grapevine" in the information sense is basically a metaphor for "telegraph
line". Central telegraph lines were (I think) often run through lead pipe
to protect them from the elements. Conceivably there could be a clue here.

Unfortunately, I can find NO text employing "grapevine cinch" anywhere.


Somebody has suggested that there was a standard barroom bet as to whether
a man could bend an iron pipe in his hands (but it was a cinch because it
was a [soft] lead pipe). I'm not sure whether this is plausible: lead pipe
was a well-known commodity, and it's usually easy to distinguish lead from
iron, so I wonder whether people could have been fooled.


And then there's likely the true etymology, which nobody's thought of yet.

-- Doug Wilson

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