Pull out all of the stops
You will have realised by now that I regularly pull out all of the stops to bring you interesting and accurate insights into some of the phrases and idioms with which we pepper our everyday speech. By this I mean that make every possible effort, leave no stone unturned in my pursuit of etymological veracity.
For those of us who visit churches for things other than spiritual comfort, one of the wonders on display is the church organ, with its impressive array of pipes and its equally attention-grabbing stentorian roar.
The organ has a long and impressive history. Its invention is credited to Ctesibius of Alexandria, who, in the 3rd century BCE, constructed what was known as hydraulis. Using pumps and water regulators, water pressure controlled the flow of air to a set of pipes, allowing different notes to be played and, in the hands of an accomplished player, a tune to be created. In the 2nd century CE an inflated leather bag replaced the water regulators and by the 6th century air was supplied by bellows.
The first organ to appear in the West was presented to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, by the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V, in 757, and Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, installed one in chapel in Aachen in 812, establishing the tradition of organs in Western churches.
As the technology around organs developed and improved, the flow of air to the pipes was regulated by a series of buttons or stops. An accomplished organist is a bit of a virtuoso, having to tinkle the ivories on the keyboard, pressing pedals furiously with their feet and opening and shutting stops. By pulling out a particular stop, the volume of that note increased. In Spinal Tap speak, pulling out all of the stops on an organ would be the equivalent of setting the volume dial to eleven.
So, is this the origin of the phrase?
Well, probably, although in the 16th century the word stop was used to denote a musical note or key. George Gascoigne, in his satire entitled The Steele Glas, published in 1576, wrote, “but sweeter soundes, of concorde, peace and loue,/ are out of tune, and iarre in euery stoppe.” The problem with thinking that this meaning of stop is the origin of our phrase is that musical notes are not pulled. Stops on an organ are. I think we have to accept that the phrase refers to the way that the volume of an organ can be regulated and enhanced – by pulling out all of the stops.
The phrase began to be used in a figurative sense much later. Probably its first usage is to be found in Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, published in 1865; “knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that…somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.”
Perhaps what is most interesting about Arnold’s usage is that even though he clearly uses it in a figurative sense, he had to anchor his reference to the musical world, in general, and the organ, in particular. It probably confirms that the origin of stop was the organ stop and that his readers would not understand his point without reference to the instrument.
It was not until the 1950s that you could play an organ at home, when Franz Rudolph Wurlitzer began to market a small, electronic organ in the United States.