Issue 111, page 1
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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:
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", 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"...
- Malkin, Gil Blas, 1809
or a "ship's mast"...
- Naval Chronicles, 1802
or a "violin bow" (i.e. a "fiddlestick")...
- T. Preston, Cambyses, c. 1600
or a "bad actor"...
- 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