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Medieval origin

Posted by R. Berg on November 24, 2002

In Reply to: A P.S. to my P.S. posted by Bob on November 24, 2002

: : : : : : I've heard this term more than once now, and understand it to be US-based, meaning a goal or an incentive. Am I right, how is it used, and how did it originate?

: : : : : It is what children obtained by reaching out from a merry-go-round (round about?)to snatch a ring from a device that was next to the merry-go-round. You had to hold on with one hand, reach out and grab the ring with perfect timing to get your prize.

: : : : Bruce,
: : : : You've done it again! - what a splendid picture and fine explanation. However, unknown in the UK, I think.

: : : I thank you for your kind words!

: : We should add that the rings came down a gravity-fed chute, and all of them were iron, except one - the brass ring, which gave you a free second ride as your prize. All the rings were collected by the ride operator and reloaded (in random order) for another chance at the brass ring. So the prize was not merely for being dextrous or long-armed (any child older than, say, 7, could pull a ring) but there was a considerable element of longshot chance involved. The metaphorical use of the phrase "going for the brass ring" has a little of that longshot buried in it.

: I don't know if any of these devices are still in operation today. They seem like an artifact from a more innocent time*, and the metaphor may have outlived the reference, as metaphors will do.
: *I remember one, but I'm almost ancient. Today's parents would probably sue the ride operator if little Billy didn't win. I exaggerate only slightly: a teacher in our local high school reports that some parents (more than one!) bring a lawyer to parent-teacher conferences. One must provide legal representation, I presume, to negotiate little Billy's grades so he can enter Harvard (perhaps by court order....)

Writers on the history of carousels say that the Victorian carousel and the associated brass ring developed from a medieval device for training knights. The knights rode horses in a circle while trying to spear a ring with their lances.