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I know that there's a film with this title, but is it also a common English expression with stable meaning?

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According to the extras on the DVD, the writer/director of the movie thought "bag of hammers" had a different meaning, and only found out later the widely-known meaning. –  GEdgar May 17 '13 at 21:45

4 Answers 4

Originally, the proverbial bag of hammers was noisy (and by implication, unsubtle)...

They would come down on her with the celerity of a bag of hammers (1913)
(where celerity = speed, noise, lack of subtlety).

you should listen to yon engines of mine. They clatter like a bag of hammers (1923)

That usage was never particularly common - I can find only another 3-4 written instances before it suddenly re-emerged and became more widespread in the 80s with various different senses...

A mug as ugly as a bag of hammers (1985, mug = face)
Your father was crazy as a bag of hammers (1989

...around the same time as the spanners version first appeared...

She's got a face like a bag of spanners (1981 and 1982)


In recent decades, bag of hammers is almost exclusively American (where it's normally used to mean dumb, stupid), and bag of spanners is British (invariably used to mean ugly).

Note that the crazy, mad sense for hammers is relatively uncommon - that's less than 30 results in total for both collocations, whereas dumb as a bag of hammers has a claimed 1140 instances. As @Matt points out, those few instances of the crazy sense probably arise by association with phrases such as crazy as a box of frogs/weasels/crackers and mad as a bag of ferrets/snakes/cats.


The answer to OP's specific question ("Does bag of hammers have a "stable" meaning?") is probably "Yes", if we restrict ourselves to current usages. It's not hard to find contemporary examples with a different sense (each of those five words links to one), but they're vanishingly rare compared to the dumb usage which now dominates.

But as commented by @Bradd below, dumb as a box of rocks is 3-4 times more common than the bag of hammers version. Besides which, the usage itself seems inherently "dumb" to me, in that hammers have no obvious (even metaphoric) connection with stupidity - I'm sure the expression only arose in the first place via inaccurate repetition of usages that do make metaphorical sense.

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Dumb as a bag of hammers is less common than dumb as a box of rocks. Both express about the same thing though: duller than a bunch of dull things. –  Bradd Szonye May 17 '13 at 19:33
    
@Bradd: You're quite right that the proverbial box of rocks is far more common than anything above, in respect of dumb=stupid. I think it's very American though (Brits tend to say "thick as two short planks"). But the box/bag of hammers version is different, in that no-one seriously thinks of hammers as being particularly stupid/dull. Those versions only exist as (unwitting?) variants of pre-existing expressions involving meaningful metaphors. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 20:52
    
I mean dull as in blunt – and blunt/dull things get used in metaphors about stupidity. –  Bradd Szonye May 17 '13 at 21:32
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@Bradd: Indeed. Many people probably see dull = stupid as a "metaphorical" extension from dull = not sharp[-witted]. But checking with OED I see they postulate it came from OE dyl = foolish. On the other hand, stupid (defined as having one's faculties deadened or dulled) derives from Latin stupēre = to be stunned or benumbed, so arguably dull means stupid more "literally" than stupid itself does. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 21:43
    
Can't believe I've gone my whole life without ever hearing dumb as a box of rocks. What a wonderful expression! If I hadn't been told it was American, I'd have pegged it as Australian for sure, though. Just has that certain Aussie cadence to it.... –  David John Welsh May 18 '13 at 2:39

There is the expression "mad as a bag of hammers" that means "crazy". I imagine that's where the film gets its name from.

Other phrases with the same meaning:

  • "mad as a box of frogs"
  • "mad as a bag of spanners"
  • "mad as a March hare"
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My experience of bag of spanners has been with respect to the noise certain car engines make. I've never heard it in any other context (and I'm in the UK too). But then I've never heard of bag of hammers either. –  Andrew Leach May 17 '13 at 10:33
    
They're both relatively common expressions where I'm from. Maybe that reflects more on the people I know... –  Matt Эллен May 17 '13 at 10:39
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I'm British, and the only one of those that I've ever heard is mad as a March hare - and it's a looooong time since I've heard that. –  TrevorD May 17 '13 at 11:03
    
@TrevorD You and Andrew are from the south east. I'm from the west and south west. Maybe the phrase is stuck over this way? –  Matt Эллен May 17 '13 at 11:52
    
@MattЭллен Thanks. I actually looked at your profile to see where you were from before I answered - but I didn't even know what continent Black Crag is in, let alone which country! [P.s. I've now noticed the link to your website, which does clarify the country!] –  TrevorD May 17 '13 at 12:27

Dumber than a bag of hammers is a well known saying that means stupid. Similar to not being the brightest light on the porch or the sharpest knife in the drawer. A well-known usage occurs in the Coen Brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

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I've heard the expression as ugly as a bag of hammers, to describe someone who is particularly ill-favoured in the beauty stakes. I can't find any online reference to it, but the similar expression ugly as bag of spanners is noted here.

Why a bag of anything should be thought ugly I can't begin to imagine.

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Presumably a bag of hammers would have a lumpy, misshapen exterior, since the items contained within do not tesselate very well. Equating someone's face to such a shape doesn't seem that big a leap to make (for the type of person who would make such a comment on someone's appearance). –  David John Welsh May 17 '13 at 11:21
    
@David John Welsh: Per my answer, I suspect the ugly sense (which is relatively uncommon by comparison with stupid, dumb and crazy, mad) probably arises from confusion with BrE bag of spanners, which always means ugly. Americans tend to use wrench rather than spanner in other contexts, so if they're repeating the vaguely-recalled BrE version they might well remember the meaning, but change the tool to something more familiar. In the real world it's not uncommon to keep many spanners in a bag (or canvas "tool-roll"), but that wouldn't be so likely with hammers. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 17:12
    
@FumbleFingers Heh, that's true. I didn't think of it till you said it, but I guess it would be a little harder to imagine a situation that called for several different sizes or types of hammer. And pronunciationwise, hammer and spanner share a certain musicality, at least in this phrase, that wrench doesn't match. –  David John Welsh May 18 '13 at 2:37
    
@David: Exactly. It's really just "armchair theorising" on my part, but the hammer/spanner alliteration does seem to have the ring of truth. And there's no doubt *a face like a bag of spanners" is familiar to most UK speakers, but Americans invariably use a wrench where Brits use a spanner. –  FumbleFingers May 19 '13 at 13:32

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