Getting down to brass tacks - True origin
Posted: 25 March 2007 04:52 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Many moons ago my father and I were talking about the origins of phrases and we talked about the origins of “Down to brass tacks” It has been 30 years since we had that discussion and I found the book he refrenced in that discussion with me.  I dug through it and found it.  Of all the possibilities I have seen in print this seems to be teh most believable.  Here it is:

During the time of the Civil war the Adjutant General of the states were required to issue an annual report.  This report is published as a book and is about 2” thick.  About 7/8th of the book is an appendix which lists all of the officers and their status, rank advancement, promotions, death in combat, etc.  The first part of the report covers a fairly detailed report of the states army, recruitment, deployment, current commanders, training, expenditures, etc.  Also listed is a complete inventory of what is stored in the Arsenal ranging from brass canons, tar buckets, sabres, bridles, muskets.  Looking at the list it is a complete listing of what an army of the time would need to stay afield.  The very “Last” item on this list is “Brass Tacks”. Brass tacks were put on the soles of soldiers shoes to extend the life of the leather soles.  I can hear the group of soldiers assigned to do the inventory looking at the list of items to inventory saying:  “OK boys lets get to it and get down to brass tacks”.  What do you think?  I will try and scan the pages in refrence and get them posted.

Source:  Pennsylvania Adjutant Generals Report - 1863, printed in 1864

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Posted: 25 March 2007 05:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Welcome to the board, Brian!  It’s always a good idea to check the Big List for common expressions like this (Dave, could there be a more prominent link to the List?); there’s an entry for brass tacks that mentions various possibilities but not yours, which seems very unlikely unless 1) an actual copy of this alleged report can be produced, with “brass tacks” at the end, and 2) it can be demonstrated that people did use the phrase in connection with it.  All that can be said with assurance is that the phrase is “of uncertain etymology.”

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Posted: 25 March 2007 09:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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This exact derivation from an 1864 book apparently is not feasible.

This is the earliest example which I know of (reported by Fred Shapiro):

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_Tri-Weekly Telegraph_ (Houston TX), 21 Jan. 1863: p. 2:

//When you come down to “brass tacks”—if we may be allowed the expression—everybody is governed by selfishness.//

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I don’t think the origin is clear. I would consider (among other speculations) the possibility of “down to brass tacks” = “down to the very bottom” originally based on the tacks in shoe/boot heels/soles.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 04:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I would consider (among other speculations) the possibility of “down to brass tacks” = “down to the very bottom” originally based on the tacks in shoe/boot heels/soles.

Which itself is dependent on the possibility (a) that these nails were ever known as tacks rather than the standard term hobnails and (b) that they were ever made of brass rather than the usual iron.
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Posted: 26 March 2007 06:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Yes, an argument in favour of the OP’s derivation is that it doesn’t depend on the use to which the brass tacks were going to be put, just that they were the last item on the list. It does seem strange to use brass tacks for hobnails, unless the wearer of the boots was going to be working in a powder magazine.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’m not clear on what exactly is in the 1864 book. Did the Pennsylvania Adjutant General’s report give an etymology? Or did it simply give a list of supplies with “brass tacks” at the very end?

If the latter, it is nowhere near conclusive. At best, it’s a clue on which to begin an investigation. But given the 1863 citation its pretty clear that the expression existed for some years prior to this and an origin in the Civil War military is anachronistic.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 06:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Eh? wouldn’t brass be just as likely to spark?

NB: Advice! don’t try to walk down a steep cobbled hill in the rain whilst wearing hobnailed boots - a student friend of mine tried it some years ago and broke his leg.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Brian - 25 March 2007 04:52 AM

Here it is:...During the time of the Civil war....Source:  Pennsylvania Adjutant Generals Report - 1863, printed in 1864

The OP has formatted this a quote from the given book, but I don’t think a writer in 1863 would have said “During the the time of the Civil War...” since the Civil War didn’t end until 1865.  This story must be written about the given book, not from the book.

As folk etymology, I don’t find this story very satisfying without an explanation as to why “Brass Tacks” or even “Tacks, Brass” would be the last thing in such an exhaustive list of items.

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Posted: 26 March 2007 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Er, no, that was why all metal in gunpowder factories and magazines was brass or bronze, even down to the railway lines.  Trying to strike a spark using brass ranks alongside trying to nail jelly to the ceiling and other famously futile activities.  OTOH brass hobnails may give better traction on wet cobbles....

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Posted: 27 March 2007 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Well, I’ll be - thanks bayard I never knew that

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Posted: 27 March 2007 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Myridon - 26 March 2007 07:17 AM

Brian - 25 March 2007 04:52 AM
Here it is:...During the time of the Civil war....Source:  Pennsylvania Adjutant Generals Report - 1863, printed in 1864

The OP has formatted this a quote from the given book, but I don’t think a writer in 1863 would have said “During the the time of the Civil War...” since the Civil War didn’t end until 1865.  This story must be written about the given book, not from the book.

As folk etymology, I don’t find this story very satisfying without an explanation as to why “Brass Tacks” or even “Tacks, Brass” would be the last thing in such an exhaustive list of items.

Knowing military terminology, I envisage something along the lines of:

Tacks, brass, etymologists, for the use of

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Posted: 27 March 2007 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Well, of course the whole thing could be the other way round:  brass tacks could have been put at the end of the list by some comedian who was aware of the saying.  The Army might not even had any brass tacks., after all, who was going to check?

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