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shameless pleading

On the stick, to get

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective: I just told my daughter to “get on the stick,” meaning get her application completed to finish her degree. I am stumped. Where does the phrase “get on the stick” originate? — Barbara, Bristol, CT.

That’s a good question. And it was a good question when you sent it to me quite a while ago, which is to say that your daughter must not only have finished her degree by now but might actually be nearing retirement. Gee, time flies, doesn’t it? That’s probably because, and you heard it here first, time itself is shrinking. Seriously. I did some tests recently, and my weeks have shrunk to just parts of two days: Monday afternoon and between two and three a.m. on Saturday. No wonder I never get anything done. I make all these great plans for the week on Monday, and next thing I know I’m walking the dogs at 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

To “get on the stick” means, of course, to “get working” or to “get going,” especially to begin doing something that you should have started doing long ago but have been putting off. Some sources I have found date the appearance of the phrase to the 1950s, but others assert that it arose at the beginning of the 20th century. I suspect that it may actually be much older, as I’ll explain in a moment.

“Stick” is, of course, a very old word, derived from a Germanic root that carried the sense of “pierce or prick,” a sense still find in the verb “to stick” when we speak of “sticking” someone with a needle. (The “adhere, fasten firmly” sense of “to stick” comes from the idea of something sharp being embedded or something fastened to something with nails.)

In addition to its basic meaning of “staff or rod of wood” or “branch or twig from a tree,” the noun “stick” has acquired a dizzying array of specialized, figurative and, predictably, slang meanings. For example, we speak of “grabbing the wrong (or dirty) end of the stick” meaning to be given a bad break, “to beat someone with a stick,” meaning to berate them on a particular topic, and, my personal fave, “the sticks” meaning rural areas, which do indeed seem to have more than their fair share of vegetation. Interestingly, when we call a person who is hidebound, unadventurous and just generally no fun a “stick-in-the-mud,” we’re using the “adhere” sense of the verb “to stick” to compare them to someone literally immovably stuck in deep mud.

The accepted explanation of “get on the stick” in dictionaries of slang ties the “stick” to either the gearshift of an automobile or the control stick (aka “joystick”) of a small airplane, the logic being that both devices confer control, and thus that an exhortation to “get on the stick” means “get going.” That strikes me as a fairly large leap of logic, but, in any case, both the airplane and auto theories would necessitate the phrase appearing no earlier than the beginning of the 20th century.

But I strongly suspect that “get on the stick” is a derivative of the much older phrase “to cut one’s stick,” meaning “to leave,” which appeared in print in the early 19th century and was probably in colloquial use long before then. The “stick” in the phrase is a walking stick, commonly used on long journeys by foot in those days, and finding, cutting and smoothing a suitable stick in preparation for such a trip was as sure a sign the person was truly leaving as packing a carry-on bag would be today. Thus to say “get your stick and get on it,” or just “get on the stick,” would have been a way to say “get going.” It also would have carried exactly the same “get up and get moving” sense in figurative use (“Get on the stick and get that job done”) that the phrase does today, which the “joystick” and “gearshift” explanations don’t really convey.

9 comments to On the stick, to get

  • Roger Landa

    I would suggest that “Get on the Stick” is a very old term to mean get to work, or get back to work, probably used by overseers of slaves or workers when beating grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. Also, sheep herders used a stick to prod their herds into moving along.

  • How about a caterpillar that must get on the stick to complete it’s cycle to become a butterfly? Maybe?

  • M Ross

    One fun use of Google is to search for particular phrases in print. That’s note perfect standard because not everything is scanned and vocal expression usually predates written expression. At any rate, the first references to the phrase “get on the stick” are from:

    Business week: Issues 3300-3306 (1941) “European allies from Ireland to Italy are pleading with the burly Chancellor to get on the stick. “Our markets are sliding away,” says Hans-Jurgen Marczinski, managing director of Thyssen Maschinenbau.”

    The Compass of Sigma Gamma Epsilon: Volume 27 (1949) “For one thing, I will be able to tell the fellows back at State College that all those Texans and Californians are doing things, and we fellows back in the East had better get on the “stick,” so I will do my best to rejuvenate them.”

    By 1950, a definition has emerged from The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: Volume 269 (1950) “To get on the stick: To work at the crap table, either as dealer or stick-man.”

    So… there you go.

  • In musical terms, “get on the stick” means not to lag behind the beat of the director’s baton.

    On a more humorous note (pun intended)… My Dad told me the origin of “dirty end of the stick” (or as he put it, the “$hit end of the stick”) came from the days before indoor plumbing, there was a stick used to measure the level of (compost?) under the outhouse. As there was also no lights in the outhouse, you for sure didn’t want to pick up the dirty end of the stick. As the youngest of 13 brothers, he was often left holding the dirty end of the stick when his Bros would flip the stick in the dark corner where it was kept. Brothers haven’t changed all that much over the years, lol.

    Oh – for the unenlightened wondering why you would want to measure the level under the outhouse – moving the outhouse was one of those things you didn’t want to wait until the last minute to do when it was needed. It involved digging a fairly deep hole. That’s also why the term “solid as a brick outhouse” has kind of a dubious meaning.

    • J. R. MacDonald

      Where I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina (where there were still plenty of outhouses) instead of just “get on the stick”, we would say “I better get the shit on the stick.” I wonder if this is related? Another local gem was used when we talked about someone going very fast. We would say something like “They was goin’ down the road just a shitin’ an’ gitin’ it!”

  • alberto

    get on the stick was use by us kid back in the 1940′s

  • Herb Reeves

    While in college, in the era before calculators, I roomed with an engineering student. Our calculating device was the slide rule, which performed the basic mathemtical functions by inscribed logarithmic scales on both the body of the ruler and a “slide.”

    It was often referred to as a “stick,” and when we needed to get down and cram for an exam, we said we needed to “get on the stick.”

    I won’t argue that this is the source of the expression, but it fit the circumstances so well that it probably kept it alive for another generation or two.

  • David

    Perhaps it is referring to horse racing where the jockey has to go to the whip or “stick” to encourage the horse to finish strong.

  • Tom

    Pure speculation here.

    In former times watermen on coastal sounds, inland rivers and canals propelled their boats by poling, as do traditional Venetian gondoliers today. I wonder if the expression might be derived from a boat captain ordering a hand to pole harder.

    It would be interesting to learn if the usage distribution is more concentrated in areas where poling boats was common.

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