Q From Irving S Schloss: What is the origin of lead-pipe cinch, which, in American slang, means a dead certainty?
A Nobody seems quite sure. We’ve a lot of information about its early days but it doesn’t quite add up to a complete story. Facts first, then the speculation.
The figurative sense of cinch is recorded from the 1870s, at first as a verb meaning to get the better of somebody or to defeat them. This is an early example:
The Grocers have us again. The annual “Combination Season” is on in full force, and from the start already made, the “Rings” of last winter, who took in $15,000 or more on Sugar, and correspondingly neat and convenient sums on other commodities, are liable to “cinch ’em, bless ’em, cinch ’em” to a greater extent this winter.
The New North-West (Deer Lodge City, Montana), 28 Oct. 1871.
This came from the saddle-girth meaning of the word, which itself had been borrowed from Spanish cincha in the 1860s. A saddle that had been tightly cinched was secure or had a firm grip. The noun came along a little later to refer to something that was a safe or sure thing, an idea which developed into the slang sense of something that was a certainty. In this example, the assuredness was on the part of the gamblers running a crooked game:
These “cinch” games are getting entirely too frequent, and all law-abiding citizens demand that the sharpers be severely punished.
Weekly Nevada State Journal (Reno), 23 June, 1877.
Lead-pipe cinch starts to appear in print in the 1880s; at first it’s associated with the race track:
In his third race, when intrusted with thousands of dollars by his stable and the public and looked upon as a “lead pipe cinch” of the best manufacture, tested and warranted in every manner, his dicky leg gives way and the faithful are left to mourn.
New-York Daily Tribune, 4 Oct 1888.
It’s obvious enough that a lead-pipe cinch is one up on the common or garden variety of cinch, so that lead-pipe here is what grammarians call an intensifier. But why should it be so? Even contemporaries didn’t seem to know:
The Western phrase, “cinching up,” means simply tightening the girth. And it is significant that, on the race-track, you hear the expression “an air-tight.” The most emphatic form is a “lead pipe cinch,” but how that intensifies the certainty I am unable to say.
Sacramento Daily Record-Union, 1 Oct 1890.
Unlike many modern urban folk, in the 1890s everyone who used the phrase knew exactly what a cinch was in its literal sense. So lead-pipe cinch had to resonate somehow with that. Jonathon Lighter, in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, points out that there was a brief flowering of another sense, that of having an especially firm grip on something. The idea was presumably that if a leather cinch was effective, one made of lead would be even more so, or that one’s grip on lead pipe could be firmer than on a leather strap.
Another form briefly appeared, grapevine cinch, which suggests that news of an impending certainly came via that famous person-to-person method of communication. Did you get the news by listening to the end of a lead pipe in the sense of a speaking tube? It hardly seems likely.
Following the first appearance of this piece in the newsletter, several subscribers suggested that the piece of lead pipe might have been used to tighten a strap. Larry Krakauer described it like this: “If you want to cinch something really tightly, you put something like a stick, or perhaps a piece of pipe, through the rope loop that goes around the object to be held, and you twist it. The length of pipe twisting the rope gives you enormous leverage. Lead pipe was a suitable size and was likely to be available.” This is plausible because cowboy cinches weren't fastened with a buckle but passed through a ring and knotted. However, essential evidence is lacking.
Frustratingly, we have to leave the story there without a resolution. This is the nearest we can get to understanding the thought processes of 1880s Americans.