By Stan St. Clair
As time goes by, I am being asked about more and more idioms and old sayings. Not long ago my friend, Richard Daniels, asked me if pulling out all the stops had reference to organs. I answered in the affirmative. Here is the full story.
This idiom means to make every effort possible to accomplish some goal. This saying derived from the way in which pipe organs were made since ancient times. Stops, in these instruments, are used to control the flow of air. Pulling them out would increase the volume of the music. Even before pipe organs were made, the word stop was used to mean note or key. In “The Steele Glas,” 1567, by George Gascoigne, this use was recorded:
“But sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace, and loue, Are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.”
Later “stops” was the word used for the knobs on pipe organs which are pulled out or pushed in to control the air flow, thus the volume, of the music. We see this in 1845 in J.A. Hamilton’s “Historical, Descriptive and Practical Catecism of the Organ,” on pages 59 and 60:
“It has three composition pedals, or pedals acting on the great organ, which lay hold of and pull out the stops …”
Matthew Arnold, a professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, was the first to use pull out stops in a figurative sense in “Essays in Criticism,” 1867, page xiv:
“... I can truly say, that, knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that powerful, but at present somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman, I have always sought to stand by myself ...”
If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.