Dear Word Detective: The other night at dinner my wife used the phrase “bring the hammer down.” My 10 year old son asked what that phrase meant. I explained to him that it meant to deal in a severe, decisive way. We then began to wonder what the etymology of this phrase would be. My wife suggested that it related to a judge’s gavel, but I have a feeling that the phrase is older than that. Could you please bring the hammer down on this question? — Edward.
You’re probably right, although “gavel” is a pretty old word, first appearing in print in the early 18th century. There are actually four separate “gavel” nouns in English: two very old terms having to do with intensely boring things like rent payment and division of estates, another one meaning corn harvested but not yet bound in sheaves for collection, and our common “gavel,” meaning the small hammer or mallet used to call meetings or judicial sessions to order, etc. “Gavel” meaning “mallet” is actually an American invention, but no one seems to know exactly how we came up with the word.
“To a man with a hammer,” Mark Twain famously said, “everything looks like a nail,” and as a metaphorical tool of construction, destruction, suppression or oppression, the ever-handy hammer has few equals in the English vernacular. The word “hammer” itself comes from Germanic roots with the general sense of “stone weapon” or “tool with a stone head,” and our modern “hammer” first appeared in Old English already with its current modern meaning of a tool with a stone or metal head and a wooden handle used to pound things.
Almost as soon as we began using “hammer” in a literal sense, we developed a wide range of figurative uses for both the noun form and “to hammer” as a verb. In the 14th century, a “hammer” was “a person or agency that beats down or crushes opposition,” a usage echoed in recent years in the US government, where leaders (most recently Rep. Tom DeLay) known for their ruthless suppression of opposition cultivated the nickname “the Hammer.” We still speak of “going at” a difficult task “with hammer and tongs,” as a blacksmith would pound hot iron while holding it with metal tongs. The metaphor of a blacksmith’s forge also crops up when we speak of “hammering out” an agreement or plan, exhaustively discussing or arguing over it until it takes the desired shape.
Literal hammers (or gavels) have also given us metaphorical uses, such as “to go under the hammer,” meaning to be sold at auction (from the auctioneer’s rap of the gavel ending the bidding). It is possible that “bring the hammer down” refers to this process as well, especially as it carries a sense of “put an end to something with conclusive action.” But the fact that “bring the hammer down” invariably invokes severe, unpleasant action tends to indicate that it originally referred to the “ruthless suppression” sense of “hammer,” a crushing action that has been delayed for a time for some reason, but that is finally decisively exercised. The hammer that is being “brought down,” in this saying, has been poised over the victim’s head for quite a while.
It’s unclear on when “bring the hammer down” appeared, but a similar phrase, “to drop the hammer on,” first appeared in print in the late 1970s. Both phrases, however, are probably much older than that.