How to Use Get Down to Brass Tacks (Tax?) Correctly

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

It’s normal to misunderstand some idioms because they’re meant to be non-literal. One example of a challenging idiom is “get down to brass tacks.”

I’ll help you learn the origin and meaning of the figurative expression “get down to brass tacks.” This phrase will enhance your writing and draw more audience when used correctly!

What Does the Phrase ‘Get Down to Brass Tacks’ Mean?

“Get down to brass tacks” is an idiomatic expression, like a dime a dozen, meaning “to start discussing or considering important details.” For example:

  • We’ll get down to brass tacks and complete the research method tomorrow.
  • Don’t be intimidated by the lengthy resort. Just get down to brass tacks. 

Is the Saying Brass Tax or Tacks

The correct saying is “get down to brass tacks” and not “get down to brass tax” because it alluded to the actual brass-headed nails. But the “tax” version may have a slang origin from the 19th century.

The idiom is an excellent example of Cockney rhyming slang that refers to “facts.” “Tacks” rhymes with “facts,” but that’s all the information available. 

Origin of the Phrase ‘Get Down to Brass Tacks’

The idiom “get down to brass tacks” is often associated with another “metal idiom,” “dead as a doornail.” Both tacks and nails are made of metals, but tacks have flat heads. Some derivations of the word refer to actual tacks and not “figurative tacks.”

First, brass-headed tacks function as fabric tools in the furniture industry. They were common during the Tudor period. Some argue that the phrase comes from the idea of removing all the tacks and coverings before reupholstering the items. 

The second derivation of actual brass tacks comes from the haberdashery industry. The idea is to measure cloth yardage between brass tacks more accurately than using the arm’s length.

There’s not much proof to support these two theories of phrase origins. But there’s another theory of its American origin that has something to do with coffin tacks. 

President Lincoln’s coffin was designed with massive silver tacks, making it unique from those usually decorated with brass tacks. The row of silver tacks framed the coffin’s top. It looked like a shield of coffin nails two inches from the edge. 

A few years later, in 1868, an article was published about the meaning of the figurative expression “coming down to brass tacks.” According to the writer, it meant “coming down to the serious business… of death.”

But this theory isn’t confirmed either. The now-common expression’s first usage dates back to 1863. Fred Shapiro said, “When you come down to brass tacks – if we may be allowed the expression– everybody is governed by selfishness.”

Since then, the idiomatic expression has been popular in the US, specifically in Texas. 

Brass Tacks Synonym

Here are other ways to say “get down to brass tacks”:

  • Cut to the chase.
  • Get down to business.
  • Get down to bedrock.
  • Get down to the nitty-gritty.
  • Roll up one’s sleeves.

How to Use Get Down to Brass Tacks Correctly

The early written instances of brass tacks from the US, specifically Texas. Here are sentence examples:

The Galveston Bulletin says that Texas must ‘come down to brass tacks’ and accept the constitutional amendment unless the people wish Congress to proceed with reconstruction (Daily Whig & Courier of Bangor Maine, 1867).

The Houston Telegraph sensibly advised the people of Texas to till the soil . . . . The sooner we all come down to ‘brass tacks’ on this subject the better (Houston Telegraph, n.d.).

There are also some ranters who are capable of better things, and I hope hard times will bring them down to “brass tacks,” and give them a chance to take a new shute (Dallas Herald, 1867).

Here are modern usages of the idiom:

The ride quality is on the firm side, but its handling capabilities more than make up for that. It will all come down to brass tacks as it is expected to be priced high like other luxury EVs in India. (Financial Express)

Unlike its tropical lead single “Don’t Go Yet,” which feels tailor-made for splashy award shows and late-night TV performances, “Bam Bam” has a cold open where Cabello just gets right down to brass tacks. (Storeogum)

Santa Barbara’s acting Police Chief Bernard Melekian and members of the Community Formation Commission finally got down to brass tacks last Wednesday evening. (Santa Barbara Independent)

Enhance Your Creative Writing 

There’s a massive uncertainty on the origin of the idiom “get down to brass tacks.” Some people think it alludes to brass tacks in the furniture trade, while others believe it references coffin nails. 

But we know that its meaning is “to focus on the essential facets of a certain situation.” So, get down to brass tacks and creatively express yourself through idioms like this one and others you can find on our site!