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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.


Don’t look down

Dear Word Detective:  There is one word in the English language that never ceases to amaze and amuse me: “up.” There is the direction “up,” and then a million or so other phrases using the word: “free up,” “clam up,” “start up,” “shut up,” “send up,” “hurry up,” “put up” and so on, ad nauseam. How did this simple two-letter word get so many uses, and is there another definition of “up” that sets all those phrases apart from the direction “up”? — Gary.

Thanks for asking that question. Not only is it interesting in its own right, but it also, in a roundabout way, renewed my faith in my own memory. As soon as I read your query about “up,” I had a faint feeling of deja vu, not about “up,” but its opposite, “down.” I couldn’t remember writing a column specifically about the direction “down,” but, after I took the dogs for a walk, I realized that I had recently done one on “downs” in the names of racetracks (e.g., Churchill Downs). That “downs” comes from the Old English “dun,” meaning “hill,” and our modern word “down,” the direction, came from the derivative “adown,” meaning “from a hill,” i.e., in a descending direction.

I wish I could say that “up,” the direction, had as catchy an origin as “down” does, but ’twas not to be. Our modern English word “up” comes, as the words for “up” in many other European languages do, pretty directly from the Indo-European root “up,” signifying “up from below.” Snooze city, I know. The only truly interesting thing about that ancient “up” is that it also ultimately produced the words “open” and “over,” as well as the prefixes “hyper” and “super.”

But whatever excitement “up” may lack in its lineage, it has more than made up for in its wildly popular career in the English language. The phrases you have highlighted in your question, employing uses of “up” that are seemingly unrelated to either the direction or each other, are only the tip of the “up” iceberg. It’s like the linguistic version of the classic Monty Python “Spam” skit, where everything on the menu has at least some Spam in it. Over the centuries, we have apparently bolted “up” onto almost every verb in the English language. If you were to print out the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for the adverb “up,” it would run to thirty-eight pages, and the Oxford editors’ note on “figurative and transferred” (i.e., not literally directional) uses of “up” sounds, not surprisingly, a bit testy and exhausted: “Some uncertainty attaches to the origin and development of many of these uses, the variety of which is so great that the adverb comes to present a number of highly divergent and even directly opposite senses, e.g., ‘to bind up’ in contrast with ‘to break up’….” In other words, many of the uses of “up” in common phrases really doesn’t make sense.

There are, of course, some broad senses found in the use of “up” in idioms that can be detected. There is the sense of “to a state of greater cheerfulness or resolution” as in “buck up” and “cheer up” or that of “to a higher speed or amount,” as in “grow up” or “speed up.” There are the contradictory senses of “bring into the open” (as in “open up” and “dig up”) and that of “to close” (“shut up,” “clam up”) or “to finish” (“sew up” or “wind up,” etc.). But for every usage that you nail down, there are ten more with slightly different overtones, and soon you’re rummaging in your desk drawer for the aspirin. Furthermore, enumerating the dozens of uses to which “up” has been put doesn’t really explain most of them. What, after all, could the “up” in “break up” possibly mean that would logically have anything to do with the direction “up”? There is no logic to these idiomatic uses of “up,” so it’s probably best to stop looking too closely at this annoying little word and simply, dare I say it, give up.

Pomp and Circumstance

And, in the distance, the baying of creditors grows louder.

Dear Word Detective: I was remembering a sermon a friend of mine delivered which described a certain biblical royal procession. Building to a glorious climax, he accidentally referred to the event as being full of “pomp and circumcision.” I don’t think he achieved the intended effect. This remembrance does have me wondering, though, what the origin is of the phrase correctly, albeit less humorously, rendered, “pomp and circumstance”? Would you be so kind as to inform us? — Father Paul Edgerton.

Well, that’s one way to see who’s paying attention. There’s probably a case to be made for slipping that sort of zinger into, say, every third sermon, enough to keep the flock on its toes but not so much as to spawn rumors of enfeeblement. After all, publishers of encyclopedias and dictionaries use a similar tactic to detect plagiarism, usually including at least one fictitious entry, commonly known as a “Mountweazel,” in their reference works. If the bogus entry later turns up in another publisher’s product, it’s lawyer time. The term “Mountweazel” (you know you want to know) comes from just such a “gotcha” entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia for a certain “Lillian Virginia Mountweazel” (supposedly born in Bangs, Ohio, a master photographer of rural mailboxes, and tragically killed in an explosion while on assignment for “Combustibles Magazine”).

“Pomp and circumstance” as it is usually used means, of course, a great display of ceremonial grandeur and ornate formality of the sort commonly seen at coronations, the funerals of heads of state and, usually (but not always) on a somewhat smaller scale, high school graduations. For most people, the phrase “pomp and circumstance” invokes the musical piece of the same name, a staple of graduation ceremonies in the US and more properly known as March Number One of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches, Op.39.” The phrase “pomp and circumstance” was popularized (and thus preserved) by Shakespeare in his play Othello, Act III, scene iii: “Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife, The royal banner, and all quality, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

The “pomp” in “pomp and circumstance” is familiar to most of us, and means “a display of magnificence and splendor.” The root of “pomp” is the Latin “pompa,” meaning “procession,” based on a Greek root meaning “to send.” “Pomp” can be used in a negative sense as well, meaning “an ostentatious display of wealth or ceremony,” which gave us the useful adjective “pompous,” which originally meant simply “characterized by pomp” but now means “self-important or arrogant.”

The puzzle in “pomp and circumstance” is “circumstance.” We use “circumstance” today, usually in the plural form “circumstances,” to mean the context or conditions surrounding something, the place, time, causes and effects, etc., of an action or state of being. That makes perfect sense, since the Latin root of the word, “circumstare,” meant literally “to stand around.” But a dull noun like “circumstance” seems a weird companion for glamorous “pomp.” However, beginning in the 14th century, “circumstance” was also used to mean specifically “the ceremony or fuss made about an important event,” in the sense that such things happened “around” the event. This sense is now considered archaic, although, thanks to Shakespeare, we still have “pomp and circumstance.”

You’ve probably noticed that, given the above explanation, “pomp and circumstance” is more than just a little redundant, amounting to something close to “pomp and pomp.” But as the parent of any graduating college senior can attest, when the bank account is drained and the third mortgage looms, there had better be plenty of “pomp” at the finish line.