English Language Blog

Let’s Talk About a Stick Posted by on Jan 6, 2022 in Culture, English Grammar, English Language

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Stick is an English word that can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it can be, as the image above implies, a dog’s toy that was once a part of a tree. It can also be another name for a billiard cue, a golf club, a baseball bat, a car’s gear shift, or a remote place out in the countryside. In the television series The Book of Boba Fett, a stick becomes a gaderffii, or gaffi stick, the traditional melee weapon of the Tusken Raiders on the planet Tatooine.

I included that last fact just to establish my street cred as a nerd.

When playing fetch with a dog, it is common to throw one stick, only to have your dog return with a much bigger stick. This is the dog’s way of telling you that dogs are experts on the fine qualities of sticks, and humans have much to learn. Don’t feel bad, however. They love you anyway.

We also have some very colorful idioms in English using the stick in its noun form.

  • “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Spoken after someone (usually a child) has been insulted. This means that insults and name-calling should not be taken seriously. Alternately, you may hear or read this phrase:

  • “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will always hurt me.”

From English author and wit Stephen Fry comes this profound variation. “Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place that was broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.”

There is also this common phrase, made famous by President Theodore Roosevelt –

  • “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Always negotiate in a peaceful and calm manner, but let it be known that you are not afraid to be forceful and will not be bullied or pushed around. Today, that big stick is nuclear weapons.

  • “You have the wrong end of the stick.”

This means to misunderstand or misinterpret something. It seems to come from a 14th century saying about grabbing a staff used in an outhouse. One end of the staff would be clean, the other end – not so clean.

Stick as a Verb

To stick someone or something is to poke, jab, or use an object to fasten one thing to another. You can stick someone with a pin, a nail, a screw, or even with a stick. In many proverbs or idioms, however, that which sticks may be an idea or a concept.

  • “Stick it to the man.”

The man in this saying is some kind of powerful authority. If you stick it to the man, you have fought back and resisted someone with authority over you.

  • “Screw your courage to the sticking place.”

In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, the title character wonders what will happen if the plan to kill King Duncan fails. Lady Macbeth replies, “Then we fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place and we’ll not fail!” Meaning, if he has the courage of his convictions to take the plan as far as it can go, then he will succeed. Spoiler alert: Duncan is soon murdered.

We have a common saying today that there can be a sticking point in negotiations. This is where two opposing sides cannot find an agreement. The modern-day sticking point, and Shakespeare’s sticking place, are much the same thing.

  • “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.’

Let me introduce you to Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan. He was an early aviator in the 1930s. Corrigan was one of the mechanics who helped design “The Spirit of St. Louis”, the plane that Charles Lindberg flew in the first flight across the Atlantic. It was Corrigan’s plan, in 1938, to be the first to fly across the US from California and then across the Atlantic to Ireland. It was a bold plan at the time, and the government decided that it was too risky. They denied him permission. Corrigan then announced that, upon landing in New York City, he would turn around and fly back to California. Instead, he flew in the opposite direction and finally landed his plane in Ireland. Corrigan said that he made a mistake with his compass. Whoops! When asked how he could make such a mistake and wasn’t it a coincidence that he ended up doing what he originally planned all along, Corrigan told the press, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” With that, Douglas Corrigan spoke a phrase that is still commonly used today. He also, it appears, managed to stick it to the man.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.