Where Does the Saying, “Pull Out All the Stops” Come From?

This will be one of those rare “Aha!” moments in life where you’ll think, “Oh, I get it—that makes so much sense.”

How many times in life have you heard someone say something along the lines of “They pulled out all the stops for this wedding?” Chances are, it was more than once. And chances are, you’ve probably never questioned where the saying came from. Well, now is the time to find out once and for all.

All evidence to the origin of “Pull out all the stops” points to the construction of pipe organs. According to the American Guild of Organists, “The pipes are arranged in rows or ranks, according to these tone colors. To bring a rank of pipes into play, the organist pulls a knob or operates a tablet called a ‘stop.’” Do you see where this is going? Pushing a knob in “stops” the pipes from producing sound, and pulling out the stops increases the musical volume. Now just imagine pulling out all the stops. … Aha!

Dictionary.com defines “Pull out all the stops” as follows:
a) to use every means possible
b) to express, do, or carry out something without reservation.

The first recorded use of the phrase in a figurative sense was in 1865, by Matthew Arnold, in Essays in Criticism, which reads, “Knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that powerful but at somewhat narrow-toned organ … the modern Englishman.”

Although our Temple Square organists probably have never literally pulled out all the stops, when it comes to preparation and performance, they don’t hold back. Watch our organists perform some amazing organ solos:

Richard Elliott performs “Toccata in D Minor.”

Andrew Unsworth performs Finale, from Symphony no. 1