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If someone has the wrong end of the stick it means they've misunderstood something.

If they've got the shitty end of the stick it means they've got a bad deal in some bargain or share-out. This doesn't seem particularly close to the wrong end meaning - so unless someone convinces me different, I'm not inclined to think these idioms share a common origin.

Does anyone know where either or both of these expressions come from?

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Wait, if you grabbed a stick by the shitty end, you wouldn't think you'd grabbed the wrong end? I would. –  bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 21:01
@bee.catt: I guess. But to be honest, even if the shit was on the other end of the stick, I'd rather not have to get that particular stick (I'd rather get either end of a completely non-shitty stick! :) –  FumbleFingers Jun 28 '12 at 21:14
True enough. But if you must touch a stick with shit on it (and hey, shit happens, so it's not an impossibility), I would say the non-shitty end would be the right end and vice versa. –  bee.catt Jun 28 '12 at 21:19
I see it more often as "the short end of the stick," which wouldn't fit with the outhouse explanations. In fact, I can't figure out how a stick can have a long end or short end. –  gmcgath Apr 6 '13 at 12:35

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/end-of-the-stick.html, the two share the same origin, not really diverging in meaning until 1850 or so.

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The link doesn't work for me. This one does: phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/16/messages/241.html –  belisarius May 16 '12 at 2:57

Before toilet paper and Sears catalogs, there was a wooden spatula called the stick. If you were in the outhouse after dark and you had to find the stick in the dark, you had a good chance of finding the wrong, dirty, shitty end of the stick. Not everyone could afford candles or lanterns, and sometimes the wind would blow them out anyway.

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Is there a source for this? –  user867 Dec 6 '13 at 3:24
@Norman Sherrod Folks back then must have had one h*ll of an immune system. –  AM55 Mar 22 '14 at 2:05

The "stick" refers to a printer's stick when typeset were physical letters. A novice would often fill the printer stick in the wrong order, in which case, the print would not be as expected, e.g. "print" would appear as 'tnirp', hence, grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

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The wrong end of the stick is usually explained as having come from Roman culture. Toilet paper had not been invented in Roman times so, they usually used a sponge on a stick, like this http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-AKCoVbCisFw/UCnEu4eqv1I/AAAAAAAAAew/OzR_GuiOqDM/s1600/spongestick.jpg The end with the sponge, was used to clean themselves. If someone was not paying attention when it came time to use a stick, they could pick it up by the wrong end. There is an explanation here http://www.cracked.com/article_16108_the-bizarre-history-10-common-sayings_p2.html

That link also says:

There is, though, another origin that's widely held to be the true one. The origin pertains to walking sticks and accidentally grabbing the dirty, non-handled end, the "wrong end."

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The origin of the two idioms is thought be related to argumentum baculum or the argument of the cudgel (or staff, hence stick). The best explanation can be found here.

The picture is literally that of a master beating a servant. If you get the wrong end of the stick, you are the recipient of the blows from the lucky master who holds the right end.

To say that you get the wrong end of the stick simply implies misunderstanding or wrong facts.

To say that you have the short (or dirty) end of the stick is to have the least desirable part of a bargain or the worst end of a bargain.

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Nay, the stick with the shitty end was not used to clean oneself; it was used to knock over the pile of shit lest it become too high and reach the hole. Also, you would want the pile to be relatively flat so that you could dust it with ashes, and thus limit the smell. (Have you people never used an outhouse?)

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Sesame is correct.
The shitty end of stick is to knock the top off the turd cone in an outhouse. The outhouse has no lights so if I put the stick upside down, the next person might grab the shitty end of the stick.

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'Grasp the wrong end of the stick'. I suspect that literalist explanations about sticks may be later, as the expression modulated in English from an earlier 'grasp the wrong end of the twig'. Double word-play here, twig from the Scottish Gaelic tuig = to understand.

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Interesting, but I think your etymology is unlikely. OED records twig = watch, look at, inspect from 1764, with "origin unascertained". But the cognate understand, comprehend sense isn't recorded until 1815. –  FumbleFingers Apr 2 '14 at 23:02

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