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What is the origin of the use of the phrase "to beat them off with a stick", sometimes used with an explitive to describe the stick?

The infamous urban dictionary describes the phrase as meaning

an expression similar to not touching a person of the opposite sex 'with a 10ft barge pole' a metaphorical stick describing the action of fighting off the advances of another person that is not phsyically attractive.

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    The meaning I've generally inferred from the use of the expression is that the person is so attractive that (usually) he must beat off the (usually) women who are attracted to him. There is no implication that those attracted are themselves unattractive or undesirable, simply that there are an unmanageable number of them. And the expression may be used in other contexts, such as a vendor having to beat off potential customers, or vice-versa, due to an unusual degree of interest. – Hot Licks Dec 4 '16 at 19:48
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    And I don't see how you can expect to find the "origin", as it's a relatively simple concept with very little metaphor involved -- something that would be invented in an instant if it didn't already exist. – Hot Licks Dec 4 '16 at 19:51
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    It's not X beat them off with a stick, for starts. It's X has to beat them off with a stick. The necessity is the point. It's exaggeration, of course, but it's required to give the impression that the attraction (which is not only or always sexual) is so strong it can't be ignored. – John Lawler Dec 4 '16 at 20:26
  • @JohnLawler - There are a number of variations on the expression. I don't think you can pick a single form and say that's the "canonical" one. – Hot Licks Dec 4 '16 at 23:18
  • Then why ask a question like this? – John Lawler Dec 5 '16 at 0:28
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The bare expression beat them off with a stick is quite old, and started out as a literal statement of how to get rid of pests:

At the same time the hogs left the hut and rushed at him. He beat them off with a stick he carried, and an occasional kick, and boldly advanced to the hut. —Harvey Wilder, "Hippopotamus and Company", Our Young Folks: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls, Volume 8, John Townsend Trowbridge & Lucy Larcom, ed., 1872

"If I am sitting under a palm tree, and scorpions and wasps assail me, I beat them off with a stick and with my hands." —Sabine Baring-Gould, The Lives of the Saints, 1877

The earliest example I can find of a figurative extension of this concept to the idea of warding off romantic suitors who are so numerous as to be a nuisance is in the story A Man's Man by Ian Hay, originally published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1909:

"And you dare," she said, "to come to a girl like me with a proposal like that! You sit there and tell me that you have taken me over from Uncle Jimmy like a—like a parcel from a porter, and that you have been saddled with my money and affairs, so perhaps it would be simplest and save trouble if you married me! Me!" she repeated, "who have to keep men off with a stick!"

The last sentence was a mistake. It was an inartistic and egotistical climax to a perfectly justifiable tirade.

I'm not sure whether the description of this phrase as "inartistic" suggests that it was Hay's own coinage or an already-established-but-clumsy cliche. However, it appears again a few years later in a romance novel:

"Doesn't like women!" echoed Monny Gilder. "He must be a curmudgeon. Or has he been jilted?"

"Rather not!" Too impulsively I defended the absent. "Girls go mad about him. He has to keep them off with a stick. He's got other things to think of than girls, things he believes are more important—though, of course, he's mistaken."

Charles Norris Williamson & Alice Muriel Williamson, It Happened in Egypt, 1914

P.G. Wodehouse also used it in 1923, but to describe a different human annoyance:

Managers are just like sheep. They know nothing whatever about the show business themselves, and they come flocking after anybody who looks as if he could turn out the right stuff. They never think any one any good except the fellow who had the last hit. So, while your luck lasts, you have to keep them off with a stick. Then you have a couple of failures, and they skip off after somebody else, till you have another success, and then they all come skipping back again, bleating plaintively. —P.G. Wodehouse, The Little Warrior, 1923

By mid-century it seems to have been fairly well-established in its current formulation:

There is a great deal of muscle involved, he's six feet ok and still growing, and I imagine he has to beat the girls off with a stick. —from an article in The Coronet, 1956 (snippet view)

Television's young Dobie Gillises have a new girl every week, its young Margies an endless supply of would-be boy friends; the widower in My Three Sons has to beat the women off with a stick . . . . —Ernest Havemann, Men, women, and marriage, 1962

"I hear you have to beat the girls off with a stick." Pierre had a devastating twinkle. —Elisabeth Ogilvie, How wide the heart, 1959 (snippets)

The earliest figurative usages are all by British authors, so I suspect this usage is British in origin. It seems to have been popularized to some extent in the context of the American entertainment industry later in the twentieth century, however, and usage of the verb beat rather than keep may partially be an American contribution.

  • Yeah, my brief excursion with Ngram found similar references. The expression has been (and still is) used in many senses, beyond the simple male/female thing. – Hot Licks Dec 4 '16 at 23:16
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My father, b. 1908, from small town NC., used it often as, "You'll have to beat the girls off with a stick," meaning I would be so attractive.

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