Issue 111, page 1

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Spotlight on...

sticks and stones

As is often the case, a response to a reader's letter got so long and involved that we decided to turn it into a Spotlight topic.  So, we have Craig Fergusson to thank for this week's inspiration.The River Styx ferry - fare, two obols.  One way only.

Much as we would like to help a TOWFI reader win an argument, this time, Craig, we fear we must disappoint.  The sticks of the expression living out in the sticks actually is sticks, not Styx.  It refers to life surrounded by twigs and branches, not stygian gloom.  The phrase is American in origin and first turned up in print in the early 1900s.  The very earliest example we have is from 1905 but it is so offensively racist that we will not quote it here.  

In those days, in the sticks was most frequently used in connection with baseball, as in these two passages:

I will have to slip you back to the sticks [i.e. the minor baseball leagues].

- Ring Lardner in The Saturday Evening Post, 7th March, 1914

Judge Landis... has not yet consigned Babe Ruth to oblivion for... playing in the sticks for exhibition money.

- Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C.) 22nd October, 1921

The stick that means a "rod or staff of wood" comes from the Old English word sticca which is believed to have its origin in the hypothetical Old Teutonic root *stik-, meaning "to pierce, to prick".  If so, this would suggest that the ultimate meaning of stick is "splinter, sliver of wood".  The verb to stick, as in "to stick with a needle", also comes from this Old Teutonic root via the Old English stician,  pronounced "stitchy-an".  Knowing this pronunciation makes it easy to remember that this word also gave us the modern verb to stitch.

It is assumed that all these words derived from an even earlier Indo-European word *stig-, "to prick", St Francis of Assissi showing his stigmata which gave rise to the Greek stigma "wound from a pointed instrument" or "brand".  This double meaning in Greek is still with us today: if a Christian saint develops wounds like Christ (called stigmata, plural of stigma), it is considered a sign of holiness, but a criminal carries a stigma (i.e. "brand") of his guilt.  Stigma is also used in botany to mean the tiny hole (as if made with a pointed instrument) by which pollen enters the ovary.  In botanical use the plural is stigmas.

Another *stig- word is the Latin verb instigare.  This sounds like it should mean "to stick into", doesn't it?  Well, in a way, it does.  Instigare is Latin for "to spur [a horse]" which, in English, became instigate.

In Middle English, stick (more often styk or stycke) came to mean "tally", that is, a rod upon which notches were cut as a means of keeping count.  Umpires and referees of sports matches would often use such tallies to keep score.  This practice resulted in umpires being called sticklers, hence the expression a stickler for the rules.

A stick can also mean a "piece of furniture"...

The moveables, not excepting my own apparel, every stick and every thread, had been carried off.

- Malkin, Gil Blas, 1809

or a "ship's mast"...

She has not a stick standing.

- Naval Chronicles, 1802

or a "violin bow" (i.e. a "fiddlestick")...

They be at hand sir with sticke and fiddle.

- T. Preston, Cambyses, c. 1600

or a "bad actor"...

Hes not a bad actor, though they call him a stick.

- W. Burton Pasquinade, 1801

or a number of bombs (usually five or six) dropped in quick succession from an aircraft, or a barrel of herring, or a quantity of small eels (24 or 25) or... well, the list just goes on and on.

A stick of tea is slang for a marijuana (U.K. "cannabis") cigarette but tea with a stick in it is tea with a dash of brandy.  What a splendid idea!  Now, shall we have Oolong or Darjeeling?

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?


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Last Updated 02/03/01 04:48 AM