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Get down to brass tacks of saying's origin

Published: Sunday, Oct. 31 1999 12:00 a.m. MDT

Question: I am interested in knowing the origin of the saying "get down to brass tacks."

Answer: The phrase first appeared in print relatively recently, in 1903. (A slight variant, "come down to brass tacks," was first recorded a few years earlier.) Despite its relative newness, no one knows for certain the origin of the phrase or exactly how it came to mean "to attend to or to consider details of immediate practical importance." Nevertheless, we do know of at least two interesting theories.The most widely circulated story has it that the brass tacks of the phrase are actually the brass-headed tacks used in furniture upholstery. Brass rusts easily, so only the decorative heads of these tacks are made of brass. The brass-headed tacks are used especially at the bases of upholstered chairs to hold the upholstery in place. When working with the brass-headed tacks, either to attach the upholstery or to remove it, the craftsperson could be said to be getting to the heart of the matter. Therefore, according to this theory, "getting down to brass tacks" first came to acquire its meaning in the upholsterer's shop.

Another theory credits the phrase to merchants in country stores. The explanation in this case is that such merchants would hammer brass-headed tacks into their countertops at measured intervals. They then would use them as a quick way to measure lengths of cloth for customers. Once the customer decided which cloth and how much of it to buy, the merchant would "get down to brass tacks" and measure out the yardage from the bolt.

Unfortunately, there is no substantial evidence to back up either of these theories, and we regard both of them as pretty dubious. Perhaps you can come up with a better one yourself.

Question: Recently, while discussing a project on which I was working, I said "Everything was going fine and then I really come a cropper." My friend replied "You what?" I meant that I was stopped dead in my tracks. Is this an unusual expression?

Answer: On the contrary, "come a cropper" is common enough to be entered in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, where it is defined as "to fail completely." The phrase, which dates back to at least 1937 in written use, involves the sense of the word "cropper" meaning "a sudden or violent failure or collapse." This sense derives from an older use of "cropper" to mean "a severe fall (as from a horse)," which was first recorded in the mid-19th century. Where this original use of "cropper" comes from is not so clear. It may possibly have something to do with the sense of the term "crop" in which it is synonymous with the "craw" in "stick in one's craw," or it may derive from the British dialect word "crop," meaning "neck." Regardless of its origin, "come a cropper" is now mostly used in informal contexts to mean "fizzle" or "flop." Here is a typical example from our files: "The film comes a cropper through its inconsistencies, its smirks and its ultimate heavy-handedness."

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Send questions to: Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA. 01102. (C) Merriam-Webster Inc. Dist. by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

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