What Does It Mean to Get down to "Brass Tacks"?

A. Leverkuhn

When English speakers talk about “getting down to brass tacks”, they are talking about discussing and realizing the basic facts in a situation. This basic idiomatic phrase is used to distinguish fact from fiction, or ambiguous vs. abstract thought. This is one of several phrases popular in the English language for driving a process toward a concrete conclusion.

An idiom is a turn of phrase that usually doesn't make sense when literally translated.
An idiom is a turn of phrase that usually doesn't make sense when literally translated.

Many people attribute the origin of the phrase “getting down to brass tacks” to the state of Texas. The phrase is thought to have originated sometime in the 1800s, and was regularly used in newspapers of that era. It was not uncommon for reporters to talk about “getting down to brass tacks”, which is commonly considered one of the primary functions of their job roles. The common reporter relies on sifting through vague information to establish confirmed facts, and this may have led the phrase “brass tacks” to show up quite frequently in their copy.

In terms of the creation of this phrase, many people think that getting down to brass tacks originally had to do with talking about upholstery. In some chairs and other furniture, a row of brass tacks helps to hold the upholstered elements to the frame. In these cases, it may be necessary to access the tacks in order to really assess the condition of furniture pieces. This would make sense in the way that the phrase is used metaphorically for digging through information to find facts.

Other explanations for the origin of the phrase include elements of the clothing industry, where small tacks made of brass were used to measure yards of fabric. There’s also the idea that this phrase may have come from traditional British slang, where individuals of a “cockney” persuasion used rhyming words to effectively code their speech. Since “brass tacks” rhymes with “facts,” some argue that the phrase was simply a common cockney twist on the literal word.

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A variety of phrases in English are used much the same way as the phrase “getting down to brass tacks.” One of these is, “to get to the bottom of” something, where “getting to the bottom” reveals much more about what is in a container, and is used figuratively for researching an abstract scenario or puzzle. The root meaning for both of these would be, “to ascertain the truth."

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