You have surely heard the phrase about ‘getting down to brass tacks.’ But what does that phrase mean and how did tacks get involved?
In this post, we’re going to talk about another idiom. An idiom is a phrase that has a unique meaning that may not be apparent from the words taken at face value. When you hear about getting down to brass tacks, you’re hearing a perfect example of an idiom.
For one thing, it is indeed brass tacks that we’re talking about. Some people only ever hear the phrase and assume they might have heard brass tax.
I’ll give you a few examples.
With New Year’s fast approaching, the NFL playoffs are nearly upon us. So it’s time to get down to brass tacks, time to explore the only question that really matters … Who’s going to win Super Bowl LVII?
From The Blade article, “Editorial: Settle gun case:”
Yet, when one gets down to the legal brass tacks, the presumption of innocence when under indictment is still a ruling principal in criminal jurisprudence.
When one gets down to brass tacks, they’re focusing on the fine details of a situation. They’re examining the hard facts to determine what has happened and how they should respond.
I once heard the late journalist Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame utter a similar phrase that means the same thing. He began a sentence with the phrase, “When you boil it down to low gravy….”
Where did the phrase come from?
The story behind how the idiom came to be is a bit murky. Dictionary.com tells us it dates back to the late 1800s.
One theory is it relates to the brass tacks used under fine upholstery. They’re among the final details that finish the project.
Another believe it relates to tacks hammered into a sales counter to indicate precise measuring points.
Still others suggest that it’s Cockney rhyming slang for “hard facts.” Rhyming slang involved replacing a common word with a pair of rhyming words…but that over time, as the slang became understood, the rhyming part would be omitted. For instance, stairs became apples and pears. The “and pears” part would be dropped, so “going up the stairs,” which might have started in Cockney rhyming slang as “going up the apples and pears” would eventually be shortened to “going up the apples.” It makes sense to its users, even if it doesn’t make sense to the rest of us. But using that form, the phrase would have been simply, “getting down to brass,” which I’ve never heard anyone say.
That sort of leads me to believe the slang explanation might not be a valid origin story.
Regardless, when you get down to those little brass tacks, you know you’re getting down to the “nitty gritty,” the important details of a situation.