Why Do We Get Down to Brass Tacks?

When it’s time to get into the important part of a meeting, someone might tell the group it’s “time to get down to brass tacks.” Then they probably sort of slap their hands on the table (or legs) and then lean forward expecting someone else to say something because apparently saying “we’re going to talk about important details” constitutes all the necessary contribution at the time. Bonus points if they don’t talk for the rest of the meeting either. But when this comes up there’s a pretty decent chance everyone is in like… a conference room or something. So there probably aren’t any brass tacks in the room, unless you’ve got a corkboard. So why do we get down to brass tacks?

What even are brass tacks?

Funnily enough, if you just look up “brass tacks” you get more hits on the idiom than you do what brass tacks literally are. It’s not that interesting, they’re just thumbtacks or push pins. “Brass tacks” specifically refers to pins made, obviously, out of brass—typically with flat, circular heads. 

These types of pins first became mass-produced somewhere in the 1750s in the United States. One of their common use cases was sticking notices onto school house doors, and apparently it was causing problems by whittling them away. At some point in the 18th century they became common tools for architects. Those kinds of flat-headed pins were likely invented in 1903 by someone named Johann Kirsten, but the use of brass or steel to form the pointy end of these pins has been kicking since their mass-production. 

In the US, these pins were patented as “push-pins” in 1900 by a guy named Edwin Moore.  [add image of patent?] Patents for those more flat-headed pins were filed in the US in 1930 by a guy named Pavelka Anton. 

But did you know that Brasstacks was also the name of a military operation executed by the Indian Army in 1986? It was basically a bunch of exercises near Pakistan to see how easily the Indian Army could mobilize (at least as India tells it). Pakistan didn’t much like that and found it pretty threatening, and even raised concerns for nuclear armament due to the scale of mobilization. It was basically one three-month standoff, and also probably not why we get down to brass tacks.

Origins

It’s pretty accepted that “getting down to brass tacks” has its origins in American English—specifically Texas. This is likely due to the “getting down to” part of the phrase, as that kind of phrasing is far more common in American English. Others have posited that the phrase stems from “tacks” and “facts” being used as rhyming slang. Rhyme slang is far more common in British than American English, so if the phrase has American origins this is unlikely, though it’s not possible to completely rule out that Americans and Brits came up with similar phrases independently. 

Other origins point to the creation of furniture and upholstery in the 1800 and 1900s. Brass tacks were often used as a measuring tool when buying fabric, they were separated a fixed distance apart so when you unspooled it for measuring you’d get a more exact amount. In this sense, you were literally bringing the fabric down to brass tacks. Other uses for brass tacks included holding furniture together, often from the underside. So if you wanted to see if everything was well made, you’d also literally get down to see if there were brass tacks. In both of these cases, the alternative phrase “get down to brass nails” was used synonymously. 


See if you know other weird turns of phrase here.

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