the short end of the stick
what is the origin of the phrase ‘the short end of the stick’?
The expression ‘the… end of the stick’ comes in many forms. most of these are about getting the worst or sometimes the best end of a deal. they inserted adjectives indicating that the bad result is ‘short’, ‘shitty’ or ‘forceful’ (or their synonyms or antonyms). there is also the phrase ‘playing the wrong end of the stick’, which has a different meaning, i.e. ‘getting the facts wrong’ or simply ‘being wrong’.
Taking the appearance of these in search engines as a guide, the four forms rank in popularity of current use as follows:
Reading: Short end of the stick meaning
1. short/shorter/longer. 2. wrong/rough/correct. 3. shit/shit/dirty/shit/shit. 4. butt/blunt/pointed/pointed/thick.
Both meanings of the phrase, that is, bad negotiation or erroneous facts, originated with a negative connotation. the ‘long end of the stick’ and the ‘right end of the stick’ were later coined as simple opposites of their respective original forms.
The expression “the worst end of a deal” is a fairly old phrase and, according to its medieval origins, originally referred to a cane, rather than a stick; for example, the phrase appears in Nicolas Udall’s Erasmus Apothegms, 1542:
as many times as they see themselves meeting the worst end of the staff in their cause.
The leap from cane to stick was made explicit soon after, when John Heywood published his remarkable reference work, A Dialogue Containing the Current Number of All Proverbs in the English Language, 1562:
“the worst end of the stick”, we now say “the wrong end of the stick”.
Heywood makes it very clear that, in the sixteenth century, ‘wrong end of the stick’ meant the same as ‘the worst end of the stick’. the meaning of that phrase did not change, that is, people did not start getting the wrong end of the stick in the sense of ‘being wrong’, until the middle of the nineteenth century. the earliest use I can find of the phrase in that context is in the British political magazine the new month magazine, 1850:
“I’m so stupid, I’m so prone to taking things the wrong way. In fact, I always take the wrong end of the stick.”
‘the short end of the stick’ is by far the most commonly used form of the phrase. that’s pretty weird, in that the ends of the sticks can be dirty or pointy, they can even be iridescent or bristly, but it’s hard to see how they can be short. this has led to the suggestion that ‘short’ is simply a euphemism for ‘shit’; after all, sticks can suck and that form of the phrase is also commonplace.
the date of ‘the shitty end of the stick’ makes this theory at least plausible, since the phrase was known that way in the mid-19th century, as in this example from the nightly swell guide, 1846 :
which one of us grabbed the filthy (sh-ten) end of the stick?
I can’t find examples of ‘the short end of the stick’ with the current figurative meaning that predates that example.
to take the case of opposition to the ‘short’ equals ‘shit’ premise, it’s not hard to find printed examples of people taking ‘the short end of the stick’ that are clearly meant to be literal, that is say, it was a real stick. I’m still not sure what the short end of a stick is, but it seems that others, at least in the nineteenth century, knew what it meant. the jury is still out