Get down to brass tacks

  • The phrase get down to brass tacks (not brass tax) is an Americanism dating from the 19th century. In the idiom, brass tacks means (1) the essentials, or (2) the basic facts, so to get down to brass tacks is to focus on the essentials.


    The phrase’s exact derivation is unknown, though there are a few theories. One is that the expression is inspired by the centrality of actual brass tacks in furniture and upholstery. Another is that brass tacks is simply a bit of rhyming wordplay derived from facts. In any case, the phrase was widespread in its modern sense by the early 20th century.


    Most early written instances of brass tacks are from U.S. sources—for example:


    I didn’t think people could quit grabbing and get down to brass tacks in a co-operative way. [Menticulture, Horace Fisher (1898)]

    After two months of preliminary activity, speculating and theorizing, the legislature gets down to brass tacks this week. [Chicago Tribune (1909)]

    Now you fellows be frank and cut out this personal fourflush, and let’s get down to brass-tacks. [“Captain Kidd in Wall Street,” George Randolph Chester (c. 1912)]

    Germany early got right down to brass tacks. [New York Times (1918)]

    Today, however, brass tacks is used throughout the English-speaking world—for example:

    But what you cannot see, what in fact you rarely find in Florentine Renaissance art, is a brass-tacks portrayal of merchant life. [Guardian]

    But only one speaker really got down to brass tacks. [Toronto Star]

    As the talks get down to brass tacks this week the parties are entrenched firmly in three camps.  []


    1. Kristian Dalgård says

      My take on this idiom has to do with carpets, notably the ones brandished by the upper classes. In order to hold the carpet to the floor, brass tacks would have been used, and, consequently, when the carpet was very worn, the tacks would begin to show, revealing the less attractive groundwork of the site.

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