phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at


Posted by Woodchuck on November 25, 2002

In Reply to: Or alternatively posted by Word Camel on November 25, 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.
: : : : : \
: : : : : On November 13, National Public Radio ran a story about Maryland's State Sport ... jousting. Their version of jousting is riding a horse at full gallop, and trying to spear a ring with your lance. Transcript available at

: : : : Jousting and the consequences of missing the ring are shown very nicely in the well-researched spoof film/movie 'A Knight's Tale.' Musical accompaniment by Queen.

: : : : Ok, I'll hush. Bet you'll enjoy the film, though.

: : : Oh now I can buy into that ring thing re jousting, and I'm pretty sure that even into the C18th, cavalry used to train in much the same way. If the iron/brass ring dispenser was a Victorian invention, I wonder why the idiom never appeared over here in the UK?

: : : Oh and now I'm going slowly insane trying to remember the word for that revolving target that jousting knights used to train with. You know the thing - you hit the shield but had to be at full tilt *and* hit it directly full-on, or the large arm on the other side would revolve round and smack you in the back, unhorsing you. What's the damn thing called? Quatrain or something (except that's a form of poetry)?

: for the romantics amongst us the word in question is "windmill".

An excerpt from the Arizona Reaissance Festival Jousting Page:

"The training of a knight included spearing a small ring, some on stanchions and some tossed in the air, and quintain jousting. (Ring jousting is today the state sport in Maryland.) In quintain jousting, the knight tilted with a mock opponent which sat on a revolving pedestal. If he was inaccurate or too slow, the jouster might get whacked by the sand bag on the other end of the contraption. These quintain devices are thought to be the precursors of Victorian carrousels. Many turn-of-the-century carrousels had a variety of things to grab, including a brass ring which entitled the bearer to a free ride."