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From a blogpost at BBC, Did internet kill the radio star?

David Lowery, lead singer for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, tells the BBC that illegal sharing of music files is sticking it to the "hippy freak musician", while internet service providers and other big corporations still get their profits.

I found some definitions: "to treat severely or wrongfully / to give someone a problem; to confront someone / to punish someone who did something wrong earlier."

But that does not clarify the use of the word "stick". So I'm still curious what is the exact etymology here. In what sense is 'stick' used: "to glue, to attach" or "to press something against something else"? Or "to beat with a stick"?

Does 'stick it' derive from, pardon my French, something like "shove it up your ..."? If yes, why does it use the preposition 'to'? And isn't it verging on very rude in this case? Seems to be already mild enough to appear on the BBC website..

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    I'd be willing to bet the etymology of "stick" is an actual stick - like the branch of a tree, used to hit someone ;-) :-(
    – rmirabelle
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:41
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    I always thought of it as more of a stab, like "sticking" someone with something pointy.
    – Gob Ties
    Jan 26, 2014 at 18:47
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    'Give 'em stick' i.e.beat them with a stick. The British are not subtle in their choice of metaphors!
    – WS2
    Jan 26, 2014 at 19:02
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    LOL @Geobits for your specificity!
    – rmirabelle
    Jan 26, 2014 at 19:15
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    I've always assumed that the metaphor underlying "stick it to him" was that of stabbing with a knife.
    – starwed
    Jan 26, 2014 at 20:28

4 Answers 4

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The earliest written instance I can find is F. C. Adams, Manuel Pereira (1853)

The old fellow laughs at the joke, as he calls it, and tells 'em, when they stick it to him, they don't understand the practice of making money.

Reading the context (be warned, it's a bit unpleasant) I'd be pretty sure the meaning there is when they bring the matter up to make fun of him (that's to say, when they give him stick about it).


In modern usage, to stick it to someone (often, to the man, representing the establishment) tends to imply attack strongly, vehemently - usually through words or defiant actions, rather than direct physical assault. But give someone stick usually means to tease them (playfully) about something.

But that divergence doesn't see to have happened until much later. The earliest use I can find for give someone stick is a completely "literal" one - Theodore Winthrop, John Brent (1862)...

Alas! only the perverted donkey, bristly and incorrigible, came under my tutorship. I was too humane to give him stick enough, and so he mastered me.

Doubtless someone else can do better, but the earliest instance I can find for give stick = tease is someone using the nom-de-plume "Flame", A Life on the Game (1984)...

The strange thing was that when the kids used to give me stick about it, I never felt ashamed.

In short, it seems metaphorical stick it to him predates give him stick by a considerable period. And the tease subsense seems to have migrated from the former to the latter. But it's also worth noting that whereas the "victim" being given stick usually feels quite wounded, sticking it to the man often implies nothing more than a symbolic defiant gesture that the establishment doesn't even notice.


In case my above text doesn't make it obvious what I think stick alludes to in these contexts, I'll just say that so far as I'm concerned it's basically beating with a stick, but probably influenced by poking with a [sharp] stick (as in bleed like a stuck pig).

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    Thank you, FumlbeFingers! I guess then that the use of "stick it to" in the phrase quoted by me from BBC is infused with irony: music sharers intend to "stick it" to the musical establishment but end up "sticking it" to independent musicians instead. Jan 27, 2014 at 8:17
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    @CopperKettle: Precise interpretation of a slightly atypical usage of a relatively uncommon idiom is obviously somewhat subjective, but I would say you're spot on with that. I'm guessing Lowery is a pretty dab hand at creative use of language, and knows perfectly well that one usually sticks it to the man/the establishment. So, yes - "infused with irony" is an excellent way of putting it. Jan 27, 2014 at 13:40
  • German ich stecke es ihm (literally I stick it him [dative]) exists as well, mostly benign in the sense to let somebody know, usually covert and of more-or less-sensitive matters if ratteling or gossip is implied, potentially as a warning, which can go over into blame. What I'm saying is, if used for actual aggression, it would be sarcastic or euphemistic.
    – vectory
    Jul 20, 2020 at 16:34
  • to stick up to surely belongs here, too, no? cp. Ger. gegen jemanden anstinken "to rival" (literally "to stink against somebody"; which is odd enough to deserve a mention); stechen also translates stick in the sense stab, pierce, but no idiom akin to stick up either way (which might itself be comparable to stoked, stuck, this is a hold up; we do have abziehen "steal, rob", possibly akin to tug; this is a real drag, I'll stop already).
    – vectory
    Jul 20, 2020 at 16:44
  • @vectory: I don't think to stick up to [something?, someone?] has or ever did have any significant currency in English. What do you think it means? Jul 20, 2020 at 17:05
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I actually asked pretty much the exact same question with the hope to get some reassurance of my concept of this idiom.

I am fairly sure that this concept is not part of the everyday persons life, and the majority have a vague and imprecise concept of it. Not only my cursory review had only been able to uncover the fact that dictionaries didn't have a consensus on the exact meaning of it, and they differ substantially in how they define it, but apparently even this SE is equally perplexed.

And the same is true for academia as most of the people there also have a limited interaction with the circles where this idiom is making its rounds.

The dictionaries make the following definitions:

Collins — “to harshly criticize, punish, or retaliate against someone”

Dictionary.com — “[to t]reat someone badly or unfairly”

Idioms.thefreedictionary – “[t]o intensely confront, punish, or retaliate against someone, perhaps vindictively or with unnecessary severity”

Lexico.com — "[to t]reat (someone) harshly or severely."

Urban Dictionary — “[to d]emonstrat[e] to the opposition you will not be a pushover[; i]n many cases, this term is associated with a positive cause, such as friendly competition in sports, or political statements or acts against oppressive policies.”

I tend to agree best with the Urban Dictionary definition which shows the most subtle layers of this phrase.

This is not really a slang; it is an informal phrase mostly used by the most competitive in the legal profession. The reason this phrase doesn't stick outside of this community is because everywhere else the social hierarchy is rather rigid; and sudden, unpredictable and severe flips of the submissive and dominative roles don't occur so often. Outsmarting the other and rubbing it in their face or stick it to them is simply the name of the game.

To get a really good sense of this idiom, and see why the Urban dictionary definition is the best one either has to make it in these social circles or watch the show Suits which focuses exactly on these dynamics of the legal profession, and the show uses the idiom over the course of 9 seasons dozens of times along with the substantially interchangeable "to rub it in someone* and to rub it in someone's face idioms.

Now seeing that a synonym idiom exist, and both refers to something it is clear that that is less idiomatic. The assumptions that the word "stick" refers to a "stick" is rather asinine considering that would mean that then the verb "stick" would be intransitive with the word "it" being in accusative case, the object of the sticking, and "someone" would not. In other words, this reading would assume that one uses a "stick" and somehow subjecting something else with it "to someone"; for e.g., giving a beating to a drum by a stick to someone else, and this latter simply makes no sense.

The proper reading is a transitive "to stick" that is "to stick *something", and specifically: "to stick something to someone".

Rarely any idiom, if any at all, does reference its objects in such cryptic manner. Interestingly enough: These twins "to stick it to someone" and "to rub it [to/in the face of] someone" both — or rather each — are talking in code as though for a taboo.

Another similar one is the idiomatic imperative "choke on it!". In the case of the latter, we know exactly the reference of "it" as being the real or figurative male part of the user based on the entire idiom being "s—— my d—— and choke on it!".

As Karl Kuhn precisely described in his etymological inquiry, it is highly common in different cultures to think of the male part as the manifest expression of power, and its use in within a masculine-dominated society does carry an "effeminative/demasculinative" effect in these examples. The use of the middle finger, the ever more popular phrase of "big d—— energy" each show our metaphorical interpretation of the male part as representing power.

Multiple languages also have similar idioms and where it is not so much of a taboo, instead of a singular third person pronoun, actual references are present.

For example in Hungarian "(vkinek beletörölni a f——t (vkibe)" means almost exactly the same thing as "rub it into someone" in a less subtle and more explicit way.

Accordingly, it is fairly clear that the etymology will be a reading that presumes "it" is used for its reference being the male part, and it is used in each of these idioms and phrases in place of that.

>! Explicit content warning

The only subtle difference that needs to be pointed out that "to stick it to someone" doesn't imply an imaginary "penetration" for the purpose "sticking it to someone", merely that the dominative humiliation takes place in the imaginary making of contact between the male part of that who is "sticking" and those who it is being stuck to. While "to rub it into someone" does, in fact, imply continued (imaginary or figurative) contact with or "penetration" by the male part of those and into whom it is being rubbed.

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In support of FumbleFingers's conclusion that the expression "stick it to [someone]" originally meant beat someone with a stick, I note the following item titled "A Nice Little Fight," in the [Ebensburg, Pennsylvania] Mountain Sentinel (August 7, 1851), in which the writer uses the phrase immediately after to referring to a (figurative) "drubbing":

The Whigs of Somerset, Bedford and Fulton are in a bad fix. Hamilton B. Barnes, Esq., of Somerset, has been nominated for the State Senate by the Whigs of that district, and Saml. W. Pearson, Esq., has been announced as the Independent Whig candidate. Francis Kimmell, Esq., has been nominated for President Judge of the above counties and Franklin, and Wm. Lyon, Esq., of Bedford has also received a sort of nomination. They are both Whigs. Mr. Kimmell is the best qualified for the station if a Whig is to be elected we hope he will succeed. Mr. Lyon is one of your fourth rate lawyers and seems to be little thought of even in his own county. We intend to look on and will from time to time notice the drubbing that the Bedford Inquirer receives from the Somerset Herald and Whig. Stick it to him Ogle.

This instance is slightly older than the one cited by FumbleFingers from F. Colburn Adams, Manuel Perreira; or, The Sovereign Rule of South Carolina (1853). But another instance is eleven years older than the one in the Mountain Sentinel. From a letter to the editor of The Stockholder, reprinted in the [Fayette, Missouri] Boon's Lick Times (June 6, 1840):

There is one view of the approaching election for Governor which is having its effect here, and which is entitled to as much or more consideration than any other involved in the canvass. When Judge Reynolds passed through this county he was careful to let "the party" know that he would "stick it to the Whigs" in the Judgeship, if he was elected, at the same time insinuating that Clark could not be trusted on that score. Clark declared emphatically and publicly that if he was elected he would "seek out the best legal talents without regard to party." ... We have all here just witnessed the total unfitness of the party Judge which has been sent to us--unfit by nature as well as education--and I never had more respect for any man than for the independent and steady minded Democrat who started and stated this view of the case to his brethren. It will work well in Randolph, at least--teaching Gov. Boggs what the Democrats think of him and teaching the would-be Gov. Reynolds that there are at least a portion of the democracy of this County who seek something more substantial in electing their Governor than merely to "stick it to the WHIGS" on the Judgeship. They feel, that on this life [tenure] business of a Judge, what "sticks it to to the Whigs" sticks it to them and their children. Will not the same view prevail in your County and throughout the Circuit? I would think so.

An Elephind newspaper database search turns several additional instances from the 1850s. From "My Course on the Proviso," in the [Indianapolis] Indiana State Sentinel (November 14, 1850):

Mr. Toombs, on or about the 13th day of December last, made a violent speech, in which h charged the whole North with being abolitionists, and invoked a union of the South against the North in the election for Speaker. He eulogised [Zachary] Taylor as a true Southern man. I confess that in the moment of excitement, I would have been willing to have seen him tested, and I so wrote to several gentlemen. These letters were private, and generally referred to what i should do if instructed. An extract from one of these letters is hunted up and published in the Statesman, in which I am made to say: "Pass the Wilmot Provise and we will stick it to Old Zack." I do not know the name of the person to whom it was addressed. I only know that about that time I determined to to vote for the Proviso if instructed. It was a private letter, and the member who handed it over to Ellis to publish was guilty of an act which should disgrace him in the eyes of all gentlemen.

The original private letter, written in late 1849, with the punchline "stick it to old Zack," is quoted in multiple Indiana newspaper articles in 1850, 1854, and 1856, and makes a final appearance in the Evansville [Indiana] Daily Journal in July 1860.

From "National Republican Convention—A Laugh-Producing Performance—The Saw-Log Man's Speech," in the Richmond [Indiana] Palladium (March 6, 1856):

As I said to Horace Greeley, one when we was a talking about these Know Nothing's and he abused 'em pretty awful too; says I—

"Friend Horace, have they done any good."

"Why yes," says Horace.

"Well then," says I, "touch 'em light!"—(More convulsions [from the highly amused audience].)

"But," says I, "Horace, if they do any thing bad——"

Voice—stick it to 'em!

Ripley—Yes, that's it!

From "Ione Valley," in the [Jackson, California] Amador Ledger-Dispatch (July 3, 1858):

Cool.—About 1 or 2 o'clock last Thursday, when it was scorching hot, Martin Stickler stuck himself into this office, bearing a huge pitcher of an iced beverage that was most excellent to take. Martin, may the boys stick to you as long as they have the dinero, but not stick it to you afterwards! The new saloon is having a run.

And from "The Illinois Campaign: Douglas Among the People," in the Memphis [Tennessee] Daily Appeal (September 3, 1858), reprinted from the Chicago [Illinois] Times:

Mr. DOUGLAS—It is true he [Abraham Lincoln] gives the abolitionists to understand by a hint that he would not vote to admit such a State [one that permitted the institution of slavery]. And why? He goes on to say that the man who would talk about giving each State the right to have slavery, or not, as it pleased, was akin to the man who would muzzle the guns which thundered forth the annual joyous return of the day of out independence. (Great laughter.) He says that that kind of talk is casting a blight on the glory of the country. What is the meaning of that? That be is not in favor of each State having the right to do as it pleases on the slavery question? ("Stick it to him"—"don't spare him," and applause.) I will put the question to him again and again, and I intend to force it out of him. (Immense applause.)

Elsewhere in this article, partisans of Stephen Douglas are quoted as shouting such similar expressions of support during his speech as "Strike him [Lincoln] again," "Rake him down," and "Hit him again, three cheers."


Conclusions

Various searches turn up seven instances of "stick it to [someone]" from 1840 and 1858 in U.S. states ranging from Missouri, to Indiana (twice) to Pennsylvania to South Carolina to California to Tennessee (by way of Illinois). These instances consistently use the expression either explicitly in the figurative sense of "beat someone with a stick" or in a context where such a meaning makes perfect sense.

A striking contrast appears in an instance from "New Zealand Journal Kept by Two British Officers, (Captains Wilmot and Nugent,) on Their Overlnd Route from Wellington to Auckland,—1846," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Australian (September 3, 1846), reprinted from The New Zealander (July 4 and 8, 1846):

[May] 24th. The 'Ogre' was detected this morning stealing tobacco out of our box, which he hastily put back when discovered, saying that he merely wished to see whether we really had sufficient tobacco to pay him or not; he however managed to hide some. After a long search among the rushes, a canoe was found, but so leaky that it would not float. They managed at last to caulk it with grass and mud; in performing which Peter stole a knife that was lent to him, saying that it had fallen into the river, he was seen dexterously to stick it to the 'Ogre's' slave. They now put our baggage into the canoe, and the slave paddled us across, leaving our two friends on the other side.

In this British military usage "stick it to [someone]" seems to mean something like "slip it clandestinely to [someone]." In any event the knife in this case is literal, and the context does not suggest stabbing or using an adhesive to do the "sticking." (Later in the same entry, the Ogre's slave paddles the two British officers across a river and then returns to ferry the Ogre across. Peter, the Ogre, and the Ogre's slave all appear to be Maoris.

The New Zealand instance, although quite early (1846) comes six years after the Missouri instance of "stick it to the Whigs." I see no reason to assume that the two forms share a common origin, given that none of the U.S. instances from 1840–1858 use "stick it to [someone]" in the way that the New Zealand instance does.

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I lack the expertise to trace a etymological path back to Roman times, but this may be something to consider as part of the conceptual backdrop to the expression. The Roman elite vigorously promoted and claimed for themselves an ideal of true manhood, while often challenging the manliness of fellow elites and denying it altogether to those of lower classes. A way of completely degrading another male was to “penetrate” them either sexually or physically, or to portray them as being penetrated, since to “penetrate” another was to essentially effeminize/demasculize them. I wonder if "sticking it to the man" may have originally referred to an attempt to challenge the authority of a social superior by degrading his masculinity. In this sense, then, the "stick" is a phallus, and the act of "sticking" is one of penetration. Not a pleasant image, I know, and it certainly invests this rather benign expression with an uncomfortable degree of vulgarity.

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