Does “drop the hammer” come from guns?
Yes and no. Or rather, sometimes.
I started out thinking this would be a breezy etymological jaunt, but nope – ended up in corpus research. Which is cool, since I’ve done plenty of etymology lately. I’m going to go through my steps and missteps, for the benefit of other folks doing a little late-night amateur lexicography. If that’s not you, skip down to the Extremely Helpful Clarifying Picture for the results.
First off, this phrase is not unusual to me. I mean, I don’t use it every day, but I don’t think twice when I hear or say it. It’s certainly less weird than last week’s “curry favor.” But I had difficulty defining it precisely to myself – something about really showing another person who’s boss. I heard someone yesterday talking about having to drop the hammer to get her son to do his homework, and sure, that works. But it’s fuzzy to me.
I checked another dozen or so etymology dictionaries and idiom repositories. Nada.
That means “drop the hammer” is less venerable then I’d thought. If there’s nothing in the history books, time to hit the slang. There were plenty of hammer-drops here, which is good, because I was starting to feel like I’d hallucinated its use entirely. The trouble was, there were way too many. One site says it came from racing. Another swears it’s trucker slang. Urban Dictionary is with Carlos, that it comes from guns (and, being Urban Dictionary, further states that it is slang for a good number of sex acts).
This made for a demo of the strengths and weaknesses of different styles of dictionaries. The OED and other big players have time, experts, and resources. They can find the oldest citations, trace the history of a phrase, and follow changes in meaning across time and space. But they have to be selective about where they’re putting in those hours; they don’t jump on new phrases until they’re well established in usage. Slang dictionaries can keep up with trends, but can’t always track their roots. New words and phrases tend to be surrounded by rumors, and everyone is sure of their own story.
So the etymology dictionaries had nothing for me. The slang dictionaries had ideas, but no two had the same idea, and nobody was citing sources. Which meant that, by Jove, I’d just have to track this phrase down myself.
I needed to stop thinking like a dictionary user, and start thinking like a dictionary maker. And for that I needed corpora. “Corpora” is the hella fancy plural form of “corpus,” and a corpus is a big heap of language that lexicographers and other linguists can hunt through and look for all meanings of the word “run,” or the earliest use of “muffin,” or auxiliary verbs with passive form, or reduplications, or whatever it is they’re interested in.
The nice thing about corpora is that they’re naturally-occurring language. Say there’s a linguist who is super into the sound /p/. She can listen to a corpus of something totally different and hear how people articulate /p/ in their regular lives. So a corpus doesn’t need to be particularly academic. “20 People Telling Funny Anecdotes About Their Cats” would be a useful audio corpus. Or “All the Audio from Season 8 of So You Think You Can Dance.”* Written corpora are more extensive, and can go back farther (obviously). You can have a corpus of 16th-century letters, or romance novels, or tweets. Or doge.
I first went to two free great corpora, the Linguistic Data Consortium’s English News Corpus, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. The LDC’s corpus is made up of the text of different newspapers, while COCA is more of a mix – popular magazines, academic journals, transcripts of TV shows to give you a little of that spoken-language flair. Their texts (being contemporary and all) are from the 90s and 00s. It’s quality stuff, check it out.
So I went looking for “drop the hammer.” The LDC gave me 48 results, mostly from the New York Times, and COCA netted 15. But neither seemed like they had the origin of the phrase. Just the opposite – they both showed writers and speakers using “drop the hammer” as a normal thing to say, something well-established, not as new slang.
A side note that’ll come back later: there were also clearly at least two different uses for the phrase. One came up in texts about politics and police and television and other general topics, meaning “fire somebody” or “kill somebody” or “bring the law down on somebody” – a broad sense. But about half the hits were in sports, where “drop the hammer” had a narrower meaning of “beat the other team spectacularly and/or remarkably fast.”
Too recent for the OED. Too old for COCA. I needed the big guns. I needed Google Books.
Google Books is a freaking huge corpus. Enormous. The LDC has a word count of 375 million. COCA has 450 million.
Google Books has 155 billion.
So after reading a hundred and eighty years’ worth of books, magazines, trade journals, songs, instruction manuals, and court records** involving the phrase “drop the hammer,” I have a theory about where it came from.
It came from dropping actual hammers.
Not, like, on your toe. But on an anvil.
Far and away the most common use for “drop the hammer” was actually getting a physical hammer from a higher position to a lower one. Early on, this is done by hand:
1892: We have heard a workman offer to put his watch on top of the pile he was driving, and undertake to drop the hammer so as to touch it without breaking it.
1922: Place the block on the heavy cast-iron anvil with nail upwards, and drop the hammer on the nail from a carefully marked starting position.
But machines take over, starting with pile drivers.*** The later entries on dropping real hammers are about setting up your equipment to do it very precisely for you:
1978: The test procedure is to cut the sample into four or more 1-IN cubes, place them one at a time in the receiver and drop the hammer from a height of 4 feet.
1997: …the operator could disengage the rollers at any time to drop the hammer on the dies with the desired force.
Now, this is subjective, but I would never use “drop the hammer” to mean putting a nail in a wall.**** Maybe I “drive in” a nail sometimes, but in the 1892 and 1922 quotes up there, my instinct would be to use “hammer” as a verb — “undertake to hammer so as to touch it,” “and hammer on the nail.” Never in a million years would I think to put “drop the hammer” there.
So what happened? I think the fundamental, actual-hammer-comes-down sense of the phrase narrowed in meaning until it was used only for mechanical hammers. And this gave specialized or metaphorical senses of “drop the hammer” more room to play.
And there are so many other senses. Hang tight.
First, there are the specilties. By this I mean things that have actual hammers in them. Pianos, for example, and cameras, but the big one is guns.
1884: …and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball.
1914: With the sights aligned on the bottom of the bull, apply a gradual and even squeeze on the trigger until you know that additional pressure will drop the hammer.
1949: “Double action” means normally that a long pull on the trigger alone will turn the cylinder and raise and drop the hammer to fire.
This extended naturally to the first of the metaphorical senses, “to shoot a gun”:
1918: But before he could drop the hammer something as sudden as a thunderbolt happened to that aiming arm, and Morrison found himself again sprawling on his back.
And then that became “to kill”:
1972: The guys’ll come splashing down here, Blackman thought, thinking there’s only one or two of ’em out there, and they’ll drop the hammer on them. What to do?
1989: “Now,” he said testily, “when I tell you to move, Mr. Lightening, you move slow, like ‘lasses in the wintertime, or I drop the hammer…”
2002: And I freeze, my mind screaming, Do it, but my finger is stuck, I can’t drop the hammer on this motherfucker, and the pool cue is swinging up from the floor, smashing into my arm, gun flying …
Second, we have hammers as a metaphorical extension of a profession. Two professions, actually. Auctioneers use hammers, and as soon as “drop the hammer” is used in reference to them, it’s used metaphorically. It doesn’t refer only to the actual hammer, it refers to ending the sale:
1892: He was about to drop the hammer when Jack said loud enough for all to hear: ” A thousand guineas for him, and no more.” “Let him have him,” said several voices. The auctioneer did not hesitate long. Down went the hammer…
1969: The auctioneer who does not clearly indicate (a) that he is about to drop the hammer, and (b) that it is in response to a particular person’s bid, generally has only himself to blame when disputes arise.
And that sense grew to ending other things, too. In fact, the first result about auctions doesn’t refer to ending the sale, but to ending talking about auctions:
1841: Jack likes auctions, and having said it once—twice—three times, we’ll drop the hammer on farther digression.
The other profession with a well-known hammer is judges. In the average courtroom drama, a hammering judge is also hollering “Order in the court!” as some rapscallion destroys the prosecutor’s whole case, but this is not the meaning that “drop the hammer” took on. No, this refers to a judge bringing down a gavel to end a trial:
1957: Whatever the Board thought at a particular time was supplemental, they would drop the hammer and that would be supplemental because they said it was supplemental, and you could not litigate it…
1964: Of course he wasn’t going to come right out and say, “Mr. Worrell, I am getting ready to drop the hammer on you because of your speech,” because he would have been tying a noose around himself for legal liability.
1964: I soon got the impression that even the new judge was somewhat hostile to the proceedings and would probably drop the hammer on me, so to speak, at the first opportunity.
What I find most interesting is that these three senses — killing someone, ending the sale, and finishing the trial — seem to have taken on shades of each other. Soon, the judge can’t just be declaring a time to be supplemental; if he’s dropping the hammer, someone’s getting punished.
1996: “He will give people a chance on probation as opposed to sending them to prison directly. But if your client screws up on probation, he will not hesitate to drop the hammer.”
2003: “You drive around with so much as a burned-out taillight, and he’s ready to drop the hammer on you for good.”
And then there’s punishment, but not from someone with an actual hammer:
2007: Each time tempers flared among inmates, Godinez would drop the hammer: twenty-four-hour confinement for everybody.
And then there are some where it’s hard to tell whether death, punishment, or finality is intended:
1976: Amos didn’t just come to tell them, “God is planning to drop the hammer.”
2005 (slang dictionary): drop the hammer v. [1970s+] (orig. US) to take decisive action (against)
2007 (about God): He could sneak up on you, and was just as apt to drop the hammer as do a favor.
2009 (intro for Spiderman villain Hammerhead): DROP THE HAMMER!
This authoritative, punishing sense is the one that I think of when I use “drop the hammer” — somewhere between “lay down the law” and “make a serious, final choice.” But which of the three does it come from? I think the answer is that they’re merging together.
But there is, as you may recall, a second sense in current usage — to beat the other team, really hard and really fast. This one clearly has a separate origin, in drag racing.
1963: (Popular Science article): A drag-racing glossary Drop the hammer….Full throttle 1966: Don’t drop the hammer on her until you get the feel of the wheel.
1964: Or you can feed in a lot of throttle and drop the hammer.
This one, as far as I can tell, comes from the idea that hammers are heavy. Srsly. If you put a hammer on the pedal, you’ll pop off the starting line. That first hit, from 1963, also includes the opposite:
1963: Feather foot….Slow driver
And this meaning extended to other sports:
1995: Said Tucker Woods: “It’s a ski for someone not afraid to drop the hammer. Slower skiers might find it a bit unruly.”
I can see why slang dictionaries have different ideas about this; there are hammers falling all over the place around here. But I’ve laid it all out now, and it’s time for me to drop the mic.
The Language Nerd
*Obviously the best season, because Sasha Mallory.
**Not that I read all of all of them, sheesh. Just the bits around the hammer-dropping events.
***A good chunk of the results from the early years of heavy machinery are lawsuits, unsurprisingly.
****A deeply unscientific survey of nearby friends and family agrees.
P.S. There’s a whole other metaphorical sense of “drop the hammer” that was common in the early 1900s, but petered out by around 1950. I’ll bring it up when I post my full “drop the hammer” corpus
later this week as the next post. Damn, this is not the first time I’ve underestimated how long these supplementary dookickeys take to put together.
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Usually I put references down here. This time, they’re all either in there as you go along, or coming up in the corpus.