February 2, 2023

Pull Out All the Stops

 The phrase “pull out all the stops” is a common phrase meaning to do everything in one’s power, using all resources at one’s disposal, to achieve an objective. If, for example, a large asteroid was headed for a collision with the earth, humans would do well to pull out all the stops to prevent disaster.

Stops are selected using the knobs to the left and
right of the manuals (keyboards).
As a musician, I have always assumed that this phrase derives from the world of organs. In organ parlance, a stop is a collection of pipes intended to produce notes of different pitches but having similar sound quality. A stop may be a single rank of pipes or may involve more than one rank. (A rank is a group of pipes of identical construction differing only in length, and therefore pitch.) An organist controls which pipes sound when a key is pressed by choosing one or more stops. This is most often done by pulling (drawing) a knob labeled with the stop name (see photo). That knob is called a draw knob or stop knob or simply a stop. To pull out all the stops of an organ means to pull all the draw knows, which causes all the organ pipes to sound at once.

Merriam-Webster attests that the meaning of “pull out all the stops” indeed derives from the world of organs. I was therefore surprised when I read a different explanation of the origin of the phrase. I was reading the chapter titled “Generator” in John R. Stilgoe’s Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene. The chapter deals with electrical generating stations, both their architecture and their mechanics. Stilgoe writes

The colloquialism “pull out all the stops” derives from the safety governor that spun atop most stationary engines; removing one or more of the weighted metal stops caused the engine to work faster and faster—removing all meant running the risk of a runaway engine, broken belts, and catastrophe.

Merriam-Webster notes that a stop can be a device for arresting or limiting motion, so Stilgoe’s explanation certainly makes sense. I suspect that the phrase applied to organs is more venerable, though I cannot prove that.

Tracking down the origin of words and phrases can be a tricky business.

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