Here’s that moment when you pause and think: pennies are made of copper; nickels are made of nickel. Is there a coin made of brass? Or is there some brass purchasing tax we just aren’t aware of?
Or was it something of a different era? Did Robin Hood steal money from the rich and give to the poor all because of that brass tax? Or does this have to do with a tea party in Boston? No brass taxation without representation? No, that’s not right.
There are so many stories I could imagine here—though, okay, fine, I’ll stop now—but it’s time to get down to the truth of this:
The proper spelling of this expression is “brass tacks” not “brass tax.”
If you want to “get down to brass tacks,” that means to get down to the core of something or to get down to the issue or task at hand.
Where do these “brass tacks” come from? Now, there’s admittedly a bit of debate there—not quite an English language kerfuffle but definitely a small squabble.
The “getting down to brass tacks” origin theories?
- In an era when haberdashery was a commonly used word (not just something a writer has fun writing for nostalgia’s sake like this moment for me personally), the shift from fabric sold by a rough “yard,” as in an arm’s length, to an exact repeatable measurement, as in precisely thirty-six inches, seems to have occurred in the 1800s. These measurements weren’t commonly made by yard sticks or rulers every time but by brass tacks that were put into tables or shop-keepers’ counters for easy access when laying out bolts of fabric. Thus, “getting down to brass tacks,” came from the “getting down to the precise details of the task at hand.” Maybe?
- Fine leather furniture has used brass tacks for centuries, not only for their function but also their style. Fine Tudor furniture? Brass tacks all the way. Federalist era chairs? Brass tacks ever so subtle and sophisticated. However, if we’re “getting down to brass tacks,” that’s a bit confusing, because the brass tacks would be one of the last pieces added to the furniture to hold the fabric or final construction in place. They wouldn’t be something at the core of the structure, as the expression implies.
- Cockney rhyming slang might have pulled “brass tacks” out of a phrase about “facts.” (Say it with the right accent and it works, trust me.) I do love language origin stories that come out of slang, but since most seem to believe that “getting down to brass tacks” is American in origin, it’s hard to get fully behind this theory.
The haberdashery answer is in the lead for me personally, but I’m not going to preach on it. You can choose your own adventure with this origin story for now.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about your taxes. The bad news is that the language etymology mystery lingers. I’ll update you if it’s ever settled.
Happy writing, folks!
P.S. Thanks to the newsletter subscriber who submitted this question. I love questions from my readers. Let me know if you have one too!
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