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The only definition I found for this phrase is:

Bring down the hammer: To treat very harshly.

This is from the Wiktionary.

However there is no etymology. So I kept looking and it lead me to the gavel of the judge in this article. However looking at the comments below, there are more options, such as the hammer of a rifle, linking it to the phrase “drop the hammer” and also the mallet of Charon to finish off the fallen gladiator, which is now thousands of years old.

The context is: A series of documentaries bring down the hammer on psychiatry’s agenda.

Update: The Word-Detective and its comments give a good insight into the different meanings, though inconclusive.

Can somebody give a definitive explanation, please?

  • In what context? Do you have an example sentence in which it is used? – Mick Jan 19 '18 at 1:30
  • Sorry, I had not noticed that link in your question. Anyway I had posted the part which I think is really relevant to this question. Good luck – user240918 Jan 23 '18 at 7:40
  • @user159691 thanks, no probs, you did help me, so thank you. – ib11 Jan 23 '18 at 15:39
  • Have you looked at english.stackexchange.com/questions/195213/…? – Jesse Ivy Jan 28 '18 at 4:12
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    @ib11 yes I noticed that upon review. It's a good question. I wasn't very impressed by the Word-Detective's entry, it seems vague. – Jesse Ivy Jan 28 '18 at 7:28
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The hammer is what is used in auctions. The auctioneer - person conducting the auction - brings down his hammer, or 'gavel' - a special hammer or small mallet for this purpose - to signify that the price is now accepted, and the item is now sold. Hence the use of 'bringing down the hammer' to mean 'to close a deal, or to finalise something.'

When a deal is made it can be harsh but that is not the meaning of this expression, which I believe has been incorrectly explained on both Wictionary and Word Detective.

To bring down the hammer does Not mean 'to treat very harshly'! - it means 'to close a deal' - or to bring the final end to something, once and for all - for once 'the hammer comes down' - in a real auction - that's it! The deal is done, it's irrevocable - finito - no more discussion! End of story. No more offers - the item is sold.

That is why the auctioneer pauses at the end and asks 'are you done?' to the audience - inviting any more offers. If there are none, he/she gives a further warning that the deal is about to happen - 'going once - to the lady in the green hat!' (announcing the proposed buyer) - 'going twice - at 50,000 Euros!' (He announces the price she offered) and then lastly saying 'Gone! To the lady in the green hat!' As the auctioneer bangs the gavel down on the table loudly to show the item is sold.

That, is 'bringing the hammer down'. It means, to close or finalise a deal, or to finally end something.

I am guessing that in this era of Ebay, the original 'manual' form of auctions that take place in an auction hall, with real people, are perhaps less known! They do still exist, for art, such as Sotheby's, and Christies, and for property and more besides.

Here's a link explaining auctioneering terms: https://www.artspace.com/magazine/art_101/art_market/art_101_a_guide_to_auction_lingo-5558

I can't find 'to bring down the hammer on psychiatry's agenda' - please provide a link. It could mean 'to see an end to it, to conclude it, to make it draw to a close' - to - whatever 'psychiatry's agenda' - is, in that context.

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    There's also the judge's gavel in the US when he orders silence in court and when he hands out the sentence. And the ordinary hammer that bangs a nail on its head. So, that might explain why the phrase has negative connotations. – Mari-Lou A Jan 19 '18 at 7:15
  • Yes well @Mari-LouA the phrase doesn't sound like a happy moment... yes the judge has a gavel and while similar I don't think that is where this comes from. Hit the nail on the head means 'get exactly the right answer' or 'name precisely what is going on' and does not have negative connotations in my experience.😊 – Jelila Jan 19 '18 at 9:04
  • That is very true, but I wonder if it is really the etymology of drop the hammer: definition-of.com/drop+the+hammer I say so because I am missing the a connotation of a slower but more forceful action that has been pending for some time and that smashes something, the meaning that has existed apparently in gladiator times. One thing is for sure that they are related and probably by now their use got mixed up. This is why I posted in the first place. – ib11 Jan 19 '18 at 16:12
  • Actually, this is for a translation in a printed article, so no link, but it is in the context of CCHR.org. In fact I double checked and it is not "agenda" but "criminal agenda". This is what have been leading me toward the judge's gavel concept... – ib11 Jan 19 '18 at 21:06
  • We have such a very violent history, don't we? Crushing the heads of gladiators... even auctioneering has at its origins 'auctioning brides' and 'auctioning slaves'. - "Nonetheless, auctions have a long history, having been recorded as early as 500 B.C.[7] According to Herodotus, in Babylon auctions of women for marriage were held annually. The auctions began with the woman the auctioneer considered to be the most beautiful and progressed to the least. It was considered illegal to allow a daughter to be sold outside of the auction method.[6]" @ib11 – Jelila Jan 19 '18 at 21:23
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+50

It's possible that the phrase bring down the hammer is a figurative extension not of a hammer that one holds with their hand and pounds either a gavel or a nail, but of a spring-loaded hammer in a flintlock firearm mechanism.

enter image description here

Searching early newspaper references to the phrase "bring down the hammer" finds references of the figurative sort in the question as early as 1884 and maybe earlier. Some of the literal uses of the phrase from that time period are referring to the hammer in a firearm of this sort.

the spring of the lock did not bring down the hammer with sufficient force to discharge the cap

One of the points upon which the witness dwelt with special stress was the impossibility of Lietenant Sutton being able, under the circumstances described in the testimony to exert sufficient pull on the trigger of the revolver to bring down the hammer of the weapon upon the cartridge.

However, I don't want to discount some indications to the contrary, such as figurative extensions that describe a literal image of a physical hammer being brought down on one's enemies. This clipping is some decades more recent than the ones cited above, but it walks a figurative line between the contemporary idiomatic meaning and a literal description of a hammer as a weapon.

The execution will be fundamenntally in the hands of the armed forces of the allies, with instructions to bring down the hammer of brute force upon the heads of any and all violators and repudiators of the peace dictated by the allies.

It's quite possible that the hammer of a rifle has no relation to the idiom "bring down the hammer," but considering its appearance in early literal uses of the phrase as a representation of enacting violence on someone else, it seems also quite possible that there is a relation.

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I always thought originally it was bird droppings from Innuit speak as in, that eagle will drop or bring down the hammer to you. Or similar was it from code talkers speaking mark for the pilot's trigger finger to lay the egg on the target nest.

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To go it hammer and tongs: to act violently and recklessly; to throw all one's energies into anything.

That definition from 1890 fits the image of a hammer in the hands of a blacksmith with an anvil, forming or reforming iron into something useful.

Source: English Idioms by James Main Dixon, a professor of English literature

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    This is another idiom, which is related, I guess, but does not explain the etymology of the idiom in the original post: "bring down the hammer" – ib11 Jan 19 '18 at 4:55
  • "A series of documentaries [reform] / [bring down the hammer on] psychiatry’s agenda." It's the same idiom, in an earlier form. The etymology of it is quoted from the 1890 book, English idioms by James Main Dixon, a professor of English literature. It very obviously alludes to the hammer as a blacksmith tool. – Bread Jan 19 '18 at 5:06
  • Yes, I looked at it, it is very useful. But what about the earlier use in gladiator situations? It has no bearing in the English phrase? Also, why not the judge’s gavel? – ib11 Jan 19 '18 at 6:00
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    Good questions. England was under Roman rule for centuries (ca 43 - ca 410), and Rome allowed the native British to continue speaking their native tongues (Latin being used mostly for official documents and government business); so the British were significantly influenced by Roman culture, even giving themselves and their children Latin names. I don't know how hammers were used in gladiator matches (although I'm sure I'll try to learn), but blacksmiths have been around since the beginning of the Iron Age (about 500 BC, in Northern Europe). I'll have to study the judge gavel usage more closely – Bread Jan 19 '18 at 6:29
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    Hammer and tongs is a different expression. It means, to put all your energy into something - to attack a task with vigour. As you would do, if you were a blacksmith - you have to whack a piece of iron very hard with your hammer, repeatedly, as you hold it with your tongs,to shape it into something. – Jelila Jan 19 '18 at 6:41
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My answer supports that given by @RaceYouAnytime and perhaps theirs is more eloquent. The etymology relates to firearms, and the hammer refers to the hammer of a gun. Here this entry cites it as a synonym of drop the hammer, both meaning to shoot, specifically with injurous intent.

dropping the hammer

Main Entry: shoot

Part of Speech: verb

Definition: discharge a projectile, often to injure or kill

Synonyms: bag*, barrage, blast, bombard, bring down, catapult, dispatch, drop the hammer, emit, execute, expel, explode, fire, fling, gun, hit, hurl, ignite, kill, launch, let fly, let go with, loose, murder, open fire, open up, pick off, plug, pop*, project, propel, pull the trigger, pump, set off, throw lead, torpedo, trigger, zap

Antonyms: backfire

http://www.thesaurus.com/browse/dropping+the+hammer

To deconstruct the phrase it appears to "bring down" has sources.

To bring down is from c. 1300 as "cause to fall," 1530s as "humiliate," 1590s as "to reduce, lessen."

https://www.etymonline.com/word/bring

Then the date of the word hammer seems to coincide loosely with the above form of humiliation.

As a part of a firearm, 1580s

https://www.etymonline.com/word/hammer

Seems like a good guess that the phrase came about late 16th century or so. Maybe later, but probably not much.

With regards to the meaning of the idiom I believe it has to do with some sort of righteous butt whooping. Often used as a form of rebuke. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=19g2wGHIRqQ

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