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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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 19:02
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    LOL @Geobits for your specificity! – rmirabelle Jan 26 '14 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 '14 at 20:28
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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. – CowperKettle Jan 27 '14 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. – FumbleFingers Jan 27 '14 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 '20 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 '20 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? – FumbleFingers Jul 20 '20 at 17:05
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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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