Where does the phrase “pull out all the stops” come from?

As we all know, “pulling out all the stops” is an expression that means holding nothing back. For example, if you’re throwing a party and you spare no expense getting the best food, entertainment, and decorations, you’d be “pulling out all the stops.” The phrase would probably also apply to these people…

So where does the phrase come from? It was first used in its modern, figurative sense in 1865 by Matthew Arnold. He writes, “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.” This is not only the first figurative usage of the phrase, but it also gives us a great clue into its meaning. It’s a reference to pipe organs!

Often found in churches and chapels, pipe organs produce sound by forcing wind through hundreds of pipes of varying size. Airflow to the pipes is controlled by a series of “stops” – little knobs next to the organ keyboard that can be pushed in and out to change the sound of the instrument. When a stop is pushed in, its corresponding pipes are silenced. When pulled out, its pipes begin to play. By carefully selecting certain groups of pipes, an organist is able to dramatically change the sound of the music. The proper selection of pipes can produce a sound that is loud and brassy or soft and subtle. It all depends on what fits the song.

Of course, the more stops you have pulled out, the more pipes are sounding at the same time. If you pull out all the stops at the same time, things will get quite loud. You’ll literally be holding nothing back!

Organ Stops

Organ stops on the 1799 Tannenberg organ in Old Salem, North Carolina. With thanks to my sister, Ashlyn Batten, for getting us in to photograph it – and for playing some awesome tunes on a 210-year-old instrument!

The bottom line here is that “pulling out all the stops” is essentially an older way of saying “turning it up to eleven.” So, next time you’re out kicking butt and taking names, regale your vanquished enemies with epic tales of the origins of “pulling out all the stops!” You’ll be glad you did.

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