Q: A recent mini-review of a film on the New York Times television page used the expression “pedal to the mettle.” I’ve always thought it was “pedal to the metal.” Is the former a proper usage?
A: The recent TV brief that caught your attention quotes the first sentence of an Aug. 23, 2012, review in the Times of the movie Premium Rush, a screwball thriller about a New York City bicycle messenger:
“Pushing pedal to the mettle and its breezily thin, goofy story to the breaking point, ‘Premium Rush’ provides just about all the late summer air-conditioned relief you could hope for.”
You’re right that the correct expression is “pedal to the metal,” but the Times reviewer may have deliberately taken creative liberties here, inspired by the mettle of the biker, who runs “a gantlet of darting cars, buses, trucks and pedestrians” while dodging a crooked cop.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the colloquial expression “pedal to the metal,” which originated in the United States in the 1970s, was used first “in the context of driving, later also in extended use.”
In a literal sense, the “pedal” in the expression is a vehicle’s gas pedal, and the “metal” is the floorboard. (Putting the pedal to the metal is the same as “flooring” it.)
This may have started as a Citizens Band radio term used by truckers. We found the expression in a glossary of CB lingo published in the July 1976 issue of Popular Mechanics: “Pedal to the metal: Accelerator to the floor.”
It also appears in books on CB radio published that year, and we found one mention from the year before, suggesting that the usage was well established in the CB world by the mid-70s.
The phrase is used both literally and figuratively as an adjective, an adverb, and a verb.
The OED defines the adjective phrase—usually hyphenated, “pedal-to-the-metal”—as meaning “high-speed, fast-paced; reckless, unrestrained.”
The adverbial phrase—often worded as “with the pedal to the metal”—means “at top speed; headlong, recklessly,” according to Oxford.
And the OED defines the verb phrase (“to put the pedal to the metal”) as meaning “to accelerate, to drive at top speed; (in extended use) to proceed very rapidly or recklessly; to perform to one’s full capacity.”
The OED’s earliest published citation for the phrase is from a 1976 issue of Time magazine: “Up to 3,500 fans will … watch these two ‘pedal-to-the-metal’ drivers bump fenders as they scream around the track.”
Another 1976 citation, this one from the National Lampoon, uses the phrase as a verb: “Once again D.D. puts the pedal to the metal.”
This 1987 quotation, from Jon Franklin’s book Molecules of the Mind, uses the phrase as an adverb: “Our world was an eighteen-wheeler full of dynamite, careening down the highway with the pedal to the metal.”
This more figurative sense of the phrase comes from the Chicago Tribune (1998): “[He] is heading pedal-to-the-metal into matrimony.”
When expressions are used figuratively, people sometimes lose sight of the original meaning of the words, which accounts for phrases like “pedal to the mettle” used mistakenly—not in jest.
Although “mettle” is sometimes misused for “metal,” the opposite is true too, as when we read of someone “on his metal” or “showing his metal.”
The proper phrases are “on his mettle” (prepared to do his best) and “testing his mettle” (showing his best qualities).
The noun “mettle” means a combination of qualities—spirit, determination, courage, strength of character, and so on. As the OED says, it’s “the ‘stuff’ of which one is made, regarded as an indication of one’s character.”
Interestingly, “metal” and “mettle” have separate meanings now, but they began life as different spellings of the same word.
“Mettle” first showed up in the 16th century as a variant spelling of the much older term “metal,” which English borrowed from Old French in the 1200s.
But by the early 18th century “mettle” had become established as the proper spelling for the metaphorical sense of “metal,” meaning “the material from which a person is made,” to quote the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.
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