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I know what "short end of the stick" means, but I was wondering about its origin. How can sticks have a short end? If the stick itself is short, aren't both ends short to begin with? And yet the idiom implies that only one end is "short."

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, waiwai933 Aug 18 '13 at 8:28

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  • Altho' this appears to be a duplicate question of the one linked by @FumbleFingers, the answer given by PieterGeerkens is not included in the previous question, so I would propose leaving this one open. (Can we mark an earlier question as a duplicate of a later one?) – TrevorD Aug 17 '13 at 11:17
  • @TrevorD: Pieter's "leverage-based" etymology seems unlikely to me. The original question itself includes both the (related) definitions for all these [negative word] end of the stick variations, and off-hand I don't see Pieter's in any off them. To me, that doesn't imply this question should be kept because it's somehow "different". It just means the accepted answer here is at best misleading, if not outright incorrect. – FumbleFingers Aug 17 '13 at 14:49
  • @FumbleFingers I don't have a view on whether Pieter's answer is right or wrong - only that it's worth some consideration and letting others comment on / discuss it. That's also partly why I've asked him for a reference. I just didn't want to see it closed prematurely. – TrevorD Aug 17 '13 at 14:56
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    @TrevorD: I think it's significant that both questions have got more upvotes than the total of all answers. Which suggests to me that collectively, we're still looking for more/better answers. Also interesting is the fact that although wrong end goes back centuries, the earliest instances of short end I can find are of the stick:1888, and bargain:1897 – FumbleFingers Aug 17 '13 at 20:00
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    Doesn't seem like a true duplicate to me. The accepted answer here should be that this is believed to be a variant of 'wrong end of the stick' and link to the other question. If that is later shown to be false (ie they don't share a common origin, and there's a different etymology around the 'short' part) then a different answer would be accepted. If you merge the questions you are saying that they are definitively variants of the same phrase, which seems presumptuous to me. – piers7 Aug 28 '15 at 3:35

After reviewing a good dozen and half possible explanations on the web, the most likely seems to be a reference to carrying loads mounted on rods (sticks), simultaneous with being a variation on the older expressions "wrong end of the staff/stick".

When carrying a load, leverage works against the bearer holding the "short end", so that they must carry more of the load. Hence "getting the short end of the stick" means having to do extra work.

Other possible explanations range mostly from the crude, to the cruder, to variations on the alleged demise of Edward II. None of them seem the least bit likely (to me) as the source for a common expression.

  • I saw a fewer of the cruder explanations and thought them rather unlikely as well, but the leverage explanation seems to make much more sense. Thanks! – Jocelyn H Aug 17 '13 at 2:13
  • I'm not questioning your answer, but it would be helpful for future reference if you were to provide a reference/link for this explanation, especially as you suggest it is from web research. – TrevorD Aug 17 '13 at 11:19
  • Following comment/answer is proposed by @PieterGeerkens (that "saw no way to leave a new reply"): The origin of "short end of the stick" is this: in the Middle Ages, wealthier people cleaned themselves with rags, after using the privy. Poorer people used leaves, or a gompf stick. A gompf stick was a stick that had a slightly curved end to it. You held onto the straight part and cleaned your backsides with the short, curved part. Anyone not paying attention when reaching for the gompf stick grabbed the SHORT end of the stick, not a pleasant experience! – Graffito Oct 4 '15 at 9:44

I think the key lies in the change from "staff" to "stick" back in the 1500's (can only guess why the change occurred.) A staff was a sturdy, straight pole used as a weapon (and a walking stick during noncombat times.) When you got the wrong end of the "staff", you just got clobbered over the head. I would say that qualifies as the worst end of the deal.

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