Q From Liam: When people go for the brass ring, what exactly are they going for? Why is a brass ring a symbol of success? Wouldn’t a platinum ring be even better?
A This one stumped me, as my cultural background doesn’t include grabbing a brass ring as a measure of success. But even a cursory glance at American newspaper archives shows that the expression is common; a recent example is in Ebony for 1 April 2004: “If you’re like the millions of women who are on the go — grabbing for the brass ring, focusing on the family or trying to shatter that glass ceiling — it’s past time for you to take a step back and concentrate on finding the real you.” In response to a plea for help, John Baker of the American Dialect Society made the key connection and from then on it was plain sailing.
We are in the fairground, specifically on a carousel or merry-go-round. At one time, the riders on the outside row of horses were often given a little challenge. Once the ride started moving, a metal arm was swung out — on some rides this held a single brass ring, which riders could try to grab as they passed. Anyone who managed to retrieve it could redeem it for a free ride. Another system had a dispenser of rings, most of which were steel and had no value, but one per ride was the brass one that won the prize.
Brass ring came to have the figurative sense of a prize, in particular one that was hard to gain. Grabbing the brass ring, going for the brass ring or reaching for the brass ring were all used to refer to the opportunity to compete for a grand prize.
Quite when it started to be used in this way isn’t clear. The earliest example of the expression I can find, and that already an elliptical one that shows the writer expected everybody to know what was meant, appeared in the Daily Northwestern of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on 3 August 1931: “The current anonymous volume ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ ... pokes fun — not nice gentle fun — at our supposed mad round of reaching-for-the-brass-ring-existence.”
But references to a literal brass ring go back into the 1890s, as in this from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 24 September 1899 about the famous Coney Island amusement park: “This big place has been the rendezvous for thousands of children who have spent their nickels and have enjoyed a ride on the ponies, besides trying their best to capture the brass ring, which the boy drops in the big iron arm that is swung out at the side of the merry-go-round.”
Several fairground history sites online suggest that the game fell out of favour in this more careful and litigious age because of the number of young people who hurt themselves reaching for the rings. Though the expression is still common, as time passes the knowledge of where it comes from is falling out of public memory.
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