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shameless pleading

Bring the hammer down

Time’s up.

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.

hammer09

Unclear on the concept.

“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.

7 comments to Bring the hammer down

  • Victor

    Drop the hammer, or putting the hammer down, is trucker c.b. slang, meaning to drive off quickly, or drive at high speed for long periods. The term originates from the idea of pushing the throttle to the floor, and placing a heavy hammer on it to hold it down, which was done, years ago, before cruise control was added to trucks.

  • C A Wethern

    In regards to the phrase “drop the hammer on”, it was used in law enforcement parlance to mean shooting someone. It would be interchangeable with the current phrase “bust a cap”. One “busts” a “cap” (primer) by “dropping the hammer” on it. The hammer is that part of a firearm that drives the firing pin into the primer when the trigger is pulled, thereby causing the weapon to discharge. It was a common expression when I began my law enforcement career in the 1970’s (back when we carried revolvers that had hammers as opposed to the modern striker fired auto-loaders in vogue today). When I was interviewed prior to going “on the job”, one of the questions asked by the board was “Do you have any reservations about dropping the hammer on someone if necessary”.

  • badger

    This phrase was used in a “Dragnet” episode in the late 1960s. Sgt. Friday mentions something to the effect “In my 20 years of law enforcement, I’ve had to draw my weapon only 10 times, and I’ve only had to drop the hammer twice.”

  • c biggs

    the question referred to “bring the hammer down,” not “drop the hammer.” while these sayings have similar meanings, i believe the phrase “bring the hammer down” is thousands of years old. in gladitorial combat mortally wounded fighters were finished off by a figure dressed as charon, the ferryman of the dead. he would raise a great hammer similar to a sledge hammer, and bring it down on the defeated gladiator’s head.

  • J. Brown

    The phrase is much older than that. It was used as a threat to small communities with assertive women in them from clergy who threatened to bring the wrath of the Inquisition upon them. Men would come with authority from the church, using methods described in the Malleus Malleficarum (Witches Hammer) to determine who was a witch, how to get them to confess and what punishment they would receive. It was written in 1486 by two German monks, Heinrich Institoris Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, who in order to get it accepted by the church, forged the approbation of the entire faculty of the University of cologne.

  • RealWines

    C Biggs you are right on the money. The term does indeed refer to the hammer of biblical time. Whilst it does have usage in the gladiatorial scene it s in fact somewhat older. It comes from the indenture of those taken from their clans who were, “bound down,” and to, “fix the pin,” a hammer was used to flatten the metal ingot, join or rivet that sealed or fastened the bind. This was done by a severe blow from the hammer. Thus the finality of the juris prudence and hence the history of the phrase dwn the ages. Not withstanding the field of the gladiators was extreme finality indeed.

  • [...] In addition to the practical uses of the tool such as hammering nails, the word appears in many metaphorical phrases: to hammer out a point; hammer out an agreement; hammer the desk to call for order, such as with a judge’s gavel; hammer away, i.e. keep arguing the same point; hammer out disagreements; fall of the hammer, meaning the end of an event such as an auction, trial, or lawsuit; put the hammer down, meaning to press all the way down on the accelerator to go maximum speed; bring the hammer down, to fire a handgun. (See http://www.word-detective.com/2009/11/bring-the-hammer-down/) [...]

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