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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

6 Answers 6

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

"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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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

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 at 15:17
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You can delete your own post if you wish. –  Chenmunka Apr 12 at 17:41

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 at 17:21

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