tongs » thongs

Chiefly in:   (go (at it)) hammer and thongs

Classification: English – idiom-related

Spotted in the wild:

  • “Ballal, Pillay and most others in the team claim to have proved a point; they go hammer and thongs against the Federation.” (link)
  • “Some friendly sibling rivalry was evident, as the brothers went at it hammer and thongs, trying to outdo each other.” (link)
  • “CONGRESSMAN: We were just always good friends and we went at it hammer and thongs from whatever it was 12 to 6 or 7. But then after all the arguments …” (link)
  • “Look, the city has been fighting hammer and thongs to get those that owe it millions in unpaid taxes and now he is waiving the same millions …” (link)

The “hammer” part of “hammer and tongs” (most often in “go hammer and tongs” or “go at it hammer and tongs”) is clear enough, but for people these days, most of us removed from any experience of blacksmithing, the “tongs” part is baffling. So some of us have rationalized the expression as involving “thongs” ‘whips’, that is, as referring to two sorts of weapons or instruments of punishment that might be used in agonistic confrontations. This one seems extremely unlikely to have arisen as a typo, and not very likely to have arisen through mishearing.

A hundred or so relevant google webhits (on 30 December 2005), mostly in the domains where agonistic confrontations are routine: sports and politics. There are some other hits deliberately playing with “thongs” as the name of an article of apparel.

I first heard this from an interviewee on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on 30 December 2005.

| link | entered by Arnold Zwicky, 2005/12/30 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Robert Andrews , 2006/02/06 at 4:08 pm

    Naughty NPR!
    That’s an annoying one.

  2. 2

    Commentary by Steve , 2006/03/02 at 12:47 pm

    There’s an interesting use of “hammer and tongs” here:

  3. 3

    Commentary by Albert O’Connor , 2006/04/14 at 2:53 pm

    I believe that tongs are large metal arms hinged together in order to hold a object in place so that it may be hammered. Some what like the much smaller pliers that might be familiar.

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