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What is the origin of the phrase "more X than you can shake a stick at"?

Every website I've seen on this basically says the same thing (e.g., http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sha2.htm):

  • Recorded history since 1818 - Lancaster Journal of Pennsylvania dated 5 August 1818: “We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at”.
  • Other early examples:
    • Davy Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East of 1835: “This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend that was worth shaking a stick at”.
    • A Book of Vagaries by James K Paulding of 1868: “The roistering barbecue fellow swore he was equal to any man you could shake a stick at”.
  • Only guesses as to the etymology for the phrase:
    • Maybe it's Native American?
    • Maybe it's military?
    • Maybe it's from a form of a boys' game "playing" military?
    • Maybe it's from counting herd animals?

Does this community have any ideas (and support for those ideas)? Also, is this solely American? Solely North American?

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I looked for this origin once before and got stonewalled. Good luck. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/more_than_one_can_shake_a_stick_at – tylerharms Nov 26 '12 at 22:16
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Let me see what I can find. I'll be back it two shakes of a lamb's tail. – Sam Nov 27 '12 at 14:49
    
I wonder whether shake a stick has a common origin with Shakespeare, literally meaning “to brandish a spear”? No luck researching it yet because so many people like the play on words, “more Shakespeare than you can shake a stick at.” But this seems more plausible to me than the counting-stick theory, especially since the “threatening” sense seems a bit older. – Bradd Szonye Apr 27 '13 at 8:07
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Perhaps it should be mentioned that shake has a meaning unrelated to oscillation, but related to wood, the material of which the stick is made. A shake is a shingle made by splitting wood, using a froe. As it happens, you sometimes shake (verb) the froe while splitting the shake(shingle). Of course, when you split shingles, you need a great number of them. – Bob Terrell Aug 28 '13 at 22:40

"More X than you can shake a stick at" means more than you can count. I don't know the origin but a as a wild speculation picture someone using a walking stick or cane to count something. If there's lots to count, the stick will be shaking a lot for each item. If there's too much, the shaking stick won't be able to keep up.

The OED says it's a figurative use of shake but doesn't give any more on the origin other than saying it's colloquial, originally and chiefly U.S., and giving the same 1818 as in the question.

It's originally North American, but it is now commonly used and understood in the UK as well.

I found an earlier example from 1794, but without the comparative "more X than...". British Synonymy: or, An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation, Volume 2 by Hester Lynch Piozzi:

TO QUAKE TO TREMBLE TO SHUDDER TO SHAKE or SHIVER AS WITH FEAR OR COLD THE explanation here is necessary because the two last verbs are of an active signification and often used as such to shake a stick at you for example or shiver the glasses all to pieces in such sense they are not synonymous with the three first But give me two shirts this morning said King Charles when he went to execution for I perceive the weather is uncommonly cold j and if I am seen to shiver from the sense of

THE explanation here is necessary, because the two last verbs are of an active signification, and often used as such ; to shake a stick at you for example, or shiver the glasses all to pieces ; in such sense they are not synonymous with the three first.

But this is British and the full phrase appears to be American, so they may be unconnected.

World Wide Words is usually a good source on these things. If they summarise: "nobody knows for sure", then that's probably the best we have.

However, there is this from alt.english.usage FAQ that questions whether the original meaning was different to today's:

This 19th-century Americanism now means "an abundance"; but its original meaning is unclear. Suggestions have included "more than one can count" (OED, AHD3), "more than one can threaten" (Charles Earle Funk), and "more than one can believe" (Dictionary of American English). No one of these seems easy to reconcile with all the following citations: "We have in Lancaster as many taverns as you can shake a stick at." (1818) "This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at." (David Crockett, "Tour to the North and Down East", 1835) "Our queen snake was [...] retiring, attended by more of her subjects than we even dared to shake a stick at." (1843) "I have never sot eyes on anything that could shake a stick at that." (= "set eyes on anything that could compare with that", 1843) "[...] Uncle Sam [...] has more acres than you can throw a stick at." (1851) "She got onto the whappiest, biggest, rustiest yaller moccasin that ever you shuck er stick at." (1851)

A connection with the British expression "hold (the) sticks with", meaning "compete on equal terms with" and attested since 1817, is not impossible.

OED staff told me: "The US usages in DAE do appear to have a different sense to that given in OED. [...] All the modern examples I've found on our databases conform to OED's definition so I think this is still the most common usage."

Merriam-Webster staff opined that the "count" interpretation "works as well for 'as many as you can shake a stick at' [...] if you take it to mean that there is no limit to how many of the objects in question one could shake one's stick at. [...] We would consider 'A can't shake a stick at B' a different expression entirely, with a meaning similar to 'A can't hold a candle to B' [...]."

In their 1897 work "A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant", Albert Barrere and Charles Leland suggested that Dutch immigrants originated the expression using the Dutch word "schok" = "to shake or hit."

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Some early quotes that might shed a little bit of light.

(1833) There are more rules than you could shake a stick at before your arm would ache
(1833) ...then run into a great picture room and see more fine pictures than you could shake a stick at in a week...
(1847) ...I've got more children of one sort and another, than you can shake a stick at in a century...
(1855) ...more reputations slaughtered than their devils 'could shake a stick at' in twenty-four hours.
(1857) ...more peddlers round the country than you could shake a stick at in a month...

These have time adverbials following, something which is not seen in later quotations. My best guess is that shake a stick at was a way of saying "count with a stick." This meaning could conceivably be related to shake a stick at meaning "to threaten with a stick," which is attested at least as far back as the 1700's.

One longer quote from 1833:

I tell ye -- cute as nutmeg -- brought up on ten-penny nails, pynted at both eends; why that air hat o' his'n' t you see there, with a new hat-case, bran fire new, see how he keeps muchin' it -- whenever you look that way; why that's nothin' after all but an old three quarter dollar swap, with the wool off, an' more spots on the brim than you could try out in half a year -- No! As true as you're alive -- or shake a stick at between now an' everlastin'

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Published 1783: "more queer people than you could shake a stick at". link – MετάEd Nov 27 '12 at 5:00
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@MετάEd: Unfortunately the printed text looks much too modern for 1783. Rather than jumping to the very first page, if you scroll back from the quoted passage you'll see "Copyright, 1913 Ida Adaline Powell". Scroll back a bit more and you'll see the older book. Google occasionally runs two books together, that's why we have to be careful with snippets. – Hugo Nov 27 '12 at 13:03
    
@Hugo good catch! – MετάEd Nov 27 '12 at 13:43
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@MετάEd: I sent an error report to Google Books about it and within half an hour they replied saying they'll review and correct it! – Hugo Nov 27 '12 at 13:49
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it's interesting that a lot of these are time-bound ("... in a month", etc.), whereas the modern expression leaves that off. – Charles Nov 27 '12 at 17:10

My assumption would be it comes from herding and protection of the animals from predators. A shepherd might shake a stick at one predator, but there may be times when there are too many to shake a stick at (making your efforts futile).

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Interesting theory, but it would be nice to see some reference on this. – p.s.w.g Jun 14 '13 at 16:56
    
Definitely makes sense! – Hendy Irawan Sep 28 '13 at 14:07

One harvests bushes full of berries with a stick, by shaking or thrashing the berry bushes with a stick. I believe it implies abundance. One doesn't shake a bush with only a few berries with a stick, one simply picks them individually. My guess is that this method of harvesting an abundant crop is the origin of the term. More than one could harvest.

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Could you provide literary examples or images of people using sticks in the way you suggested? I quite like your theory but I'm not entirely convinced. P.S you need to space out the words in your answer. – Mari-Lou A Jul 30 '13 at 5:57
    
indeed very interesting if this were true – Hendy Irawan Sep 28 '13 at 13:43

Hugo's response, with the excerpt from British Synonymy, may hold a clue. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, "to shake a stick at," was commonly used in descriptions of fights with walking sticks, or canes. "To shake one's stick at" someone (literally) was to threaten them with one's stick or cane. There is not perfect proof that this was the origin, but several examples of literally "shaking a stick" from the 1810s and 1820s may explain the allusion. There are several examples of people trying to threaten, coerce, or control a number of people, or dogs, by "shaking a stick" at them. It seems that if there were too many people to handle, that it would be "too many to shake a stick at."

"[An old boarding-school schoolmaster] has been mentioned as possessing an influence over the manners and conduct of the inhabitants almost unbounded. . . . “If he shook his stick at the Hall Green, (the place of his residence,) the boys trembled as far as the town land end” (distant half a mile)."

The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature (London), Volume 18, Number 214, December 1823, page 683.

"As Young Francis was walking through a village with his tutor, they were annoyed by two or three cur dogs, that came running after them . . . . Francis every now and then stopped and shook his stick at them, or stooped down to pick up a stone . . . ."

J. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld, Evenings at Home, or, The Juvenile Budget Opened, London, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1819, Volume 6, page 58.

Many more examples can be seen here: http://esnpc.blogspot.com/2016/03/sticks-and-canes-may-break-my-bones.html

It's possible, at least; it is a reasonable explanation based on actual, contemporary usage of "shake a stick" at the same time that the idiom first appeared.

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If you note the quotations with time-related adverbial phrases attached, the phrase makes more sense (from Origin of "More X than you can shake a stick at"): - (1833) There are more rules than you could shake a stick at before your arm would ache - (1833) ...then run into a great picture room and see more fine pictures than you could shake a stick at in a week... - (1847) ...I've got more children of one sort and another,than you can shake a stick at in a century... - (1855) ...more reputations slaughtered than their devils 'could shake a stick at' in twenty-four hours. - (1857) ...more peddlers round the country than you could shake a stick at in a month... Regardless of why one might want to shake a stick—which I agree is unclear—there are only so many times that you can do so before your arm would ache, or in a certain period of time, and to say “more than” that indicates abundance. Frankly, for me it works better, is actually quite clear for my purposes, with a time limit—and the length of time indicates just how abundant the item cited is!

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oops, just saw that someone had posted this above; sorry! delete this if you can! – Sally G Apr 12 '14 at 15:17
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You can delete your own post if you wish. – Chenmunka Apr 12 '14 at 17:41

This is purely conjecture - I can find no hard evidence for it.

In England I grew up with a similar, though more specific phrase:

More than you can shake a shitty stick at.

This, I believe (though I cannot substantiate it) comes from the practice of spreading manure over a small field using a stick (typically blackthorn) by throwing it from the end. In the local Somerset dialect the phrase, I believe, was more akin to:

More'n you can shuck yer shitty stick at

Where shuck is to cast off or throw away.

Obviously, if you have too many acres of land to manure it rapidly becomes impractical to do it all with a stick like that - hence more than you can suck your shitty stick at, or shake your shitty stick at as it has become corrupted to over the centuries.

The only reference I have found to date is the lyrics of a Wurzel's song (old Somerset band) "Champion Dung Spreader":

Just leave our old man where the dung lies piled up thick,

And he'll make it fly for miles with 'is girt big blackthorn stick!

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I believe it comes from prospecting, or some form of mining. One goldminer says to the other,"I got me more gold over here than you can shake you're silly stick at!". That's my guess, at least. The stick, of course, being the pickaxe.

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Welcome to English.SE! In general, we value answers that have sources or at least an externally verifiable proof, not personal guesses. If you have any proof for this, I'd love to see it, but the earliest uses listed here (1790s) don't seem to be used in a mining context, so I do doubt your assertion. – Charles Jun 1 '14 at 17:21

This phrase or idea likely predates English, but its English source may have been derived separately.

It is probably from those who used sticks in counting. See counting sticks or tally sticks.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tally_marks

If you are counting more items than your counting stick can manage, there are quite literally more X than you can count or shake your stick at.

Individuals having trouble with counting are easily imagined to actually shake their stick in anger/disappointment/frustration.

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If this is your own guess, then it is inappropriate for this site. References, or it isn't true. – cobaltduck Apr 19 at 18:10
    
@cobaltduck Almost every reference provided by others here was listed by the poster them-self. – PCSgtL Apr 19 at 18:16

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