Q From Irving S Schloss: What is the origin of lead-pipe cinch, which, in American slang, means a dead certainty?
A Nobody seems quite sure. We’ve a lot of information about its early days but it doesn’t quite add up to a complete story. Facts first, then the speculation.
The figurative sense of cinch is recorded from the 1880s on. This came from the saddle-girth meaning of the word, which itself had been borrowed from Spanish cincha in the 1860s. A saddle that had been tightly cinched was secure, so something that was a cinch was a safe or sure thing, an idea which developed into the slang sense of something that was a certainty.
Lead-pipe cinch suddenly appears in the early 1890s, only a few years after that sense of cinch had been created. The first mention I can find is in a parody of Sandford Bennett’s hymn In The Sweet By and By that appeared in the Chicago Tribune late in 1891: “Oh, the place will be delightful, and it’s worth our while to try / To get a lead pipe cinch upon the sweet by and by.”
It’s obvious enough that a lead-pipe cinch is one up on the common or garden variety of cinch, so that lead-pipe here is what grammarians call an intensifier. But why should it be so? This is where we part company with the facts and go drifting off on the wayward currents of surmise and supposition. Robert Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang suggested it is because a lead pipe is easily bent, “in case one has bet on such a feat”. Eric Partridge thought it came about through the effectiveness of a length of lead pipe as a weapon. Jonathon Green argues it is the solidity of the lead pipe that is most important.
Unlike many modern urban folk, in the 1890s everyone who used the phrase knew exactly what a cinch was in its literal sense. So lead-pipe cinch had to resonate somehow with that. Jonathon Lighter, in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, points out that there was a brief flowering of another sense, that of having an especially firm grip on something. The idea was presumably that if a leather cinch was effective, one made of lead would be even more so, or that one’s grip on lead pipe could be firmer than on a leather strap.
Following the first appearance of this piece in the newsletter, several subscribers suggested that the piece of lead pipe might have been used to tighten a strap. Larry Krakauer described it like this: “We ‘cinch’, or ‘cinch up’, anything that is held tightly by a strap or rope. If you want to cinch something really tightly, you put something like a stick, or perhaps a piece of pipe, through the rope loop that goes around the object to be held, and you twist it. The length of pipe twisting the rope gives you enormous leverage. Lead pipe was a suitable size and was likely to be available.” This sounds possible, though essential evidence is lacking.
Many others sought an origin in the plumbing trade, on the basis that there might have been some device that held, or cinched, pieces of pipe together. It might have been a version of a device sometimes known as a strap wrench, which is used when the jaws of a standard monkey wrench would damage the item being worked on. It’s a plausible-sounding origin, but I’ve found nothing to suggest a link between the expression and the plumbing business.
Either way, this is the nearest we can get to understanding the thought processes of 1890s Americans.