I am reading a contemporary American novel. In a dialogue, one of the characters quotes a proverb her mother used to say: "Wish in one hand, tacky in the other. See which fills up first". I quote the full line so that the context is clearer. I don't quite understand what "tacky" means in this specific case. According to Collins dictionary, it is something "cheap and badly made or vulgar", or something "sticky". But what is the meaning in this context?

My momma used to tell me something about wishing. She said, “Wish in one hand, tacky in the other. See which fills up first.” Never did know what tacky meant when I was a kid, but me and my brothers figured it out later on. Anyway, that’s what Momma said about wishes.

The novel is The Sentence by Christina Dalcher.


7 Answers 7


The original form is "Wish in one hand, shit in the other." This is listed in the 1736 Dictionarium Britannicum - google led me there via this Reddit post. According to comments there similar phrases are common in other languages too, and the (possibly bowlderised?) form "Wish in one hand, spit in the other" is also seen in the 18th century.

To answer the actual question, 'tacky' is in this case a euphemism for 'shit', and the rudeness of the original phrase is why the narrator only understood it when she was older.

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    So you'd take these as nouns? 'Taffy' hardly has the form of a typical verb. Commented May 23 at 11:22
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    @EdwinAshworth — They are verbs: wish, shit, and see... Commented May 23 at 23:29
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    Ah, I think I see what you mean now. You're interpreting it as 'make wishes into one hand and defecate into the other,' yes? That does make sense. 'Tacky' certainly doesn't sound like a euphemism for the verb form of 'shit', though, so I wouldn't be surprised if the author had the same interpretation as me.
    – aantia
    Commented May 24 at 7:56
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    @aantia The verb form does make more sense with the "see which one fills up first". That part makes the noun form almost non-sensical IMO. I interpret the expression as basically timing how long it would take you to fill your hand by shitting in it vs wishing in it, which obviously will fill your hand with shit quicker than it will fill with wishes.
    – JMac
    Commented May 24 at 13:30
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    @aantia I dont really get how that noun form actually makes sense. It's missing a verb, and it's not clear to me how those containers are supposed to get more of the object assigned to them. Like if I designate one hand for fish, and another for rubbish, how does "see which fills up first" relate to that? The first sentence doesnt suggest that either hand is being filled, or even being given more fish/rubbish, it just assigns nouns to each hand and then asks a question that doesnt really follow from assigning nouns to hands.
    – JMac
    Commented May 24 at 15:44

My Mother (1926-2010, North Carolina) used to say "Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one you get first". I always thought she meant don't be silly, that will never happen. As in useless wishful thinking. Spit and tacky, are, perhaps, regional speech differences, but the saying conveys the same idea either way.

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    Did you ever enquire what 'Wish in one hand' meant? Commented May 23 at 11:20
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    @EdwinAshworth it was always said to me in response to me saying "I wish blahblahblah", so it's clear from the conversational context
    – Rob K
    Commented May 28 at 13:52
  • Best added to the answer. Commented May 28 at 13:53

Following up on the excellent answer from aantia, I note that Nathan Bailey seems to have drawn the example of the proverb cited in his 1736 dictionary from the great John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs: Digested Into a Convenient Method for the Speedy Finding Any One upon Occasion (1670):

Wish in one hand and sh--- in the other, and see which will be full first.

There is also an early Scottish version of the saying. From James Kelly, A Complete Collection of Scotish Proverbs Explained and Made Intelligible to the English Reader (1721):

Wish in one Hand and drite in another, and see which will be first full.

In both of these expression, it appears that wish and shit/drite are acting as verbs.

Alexander Warrack, Chamber's Scots Dictionary (1911) reports that drite can function as either a verb or a noun:

Drite, v. to void excrement.—n. excrement.

However, John Jameson, Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825) treats drite exclusively as a verb:

To DRITE, v. n. [that is, verb neuter, an intransitive verb; see tchrist's very helpful answer at What is the meaning and usage of the abbreviation "v. a."? ] Exonerare ventrem [that is, "to empty the stomach"]; pret. drate, dret, S.

[First cited example:] "The Earl of Moray asked the Kyng [James V of Scotland] where hys menyon Sir James [Hamilton] was, that he cam not with hym : the Kyng said he had fawttid sore to him, and shuld never have hys favor agayne : Na, said the Erle, by ——— he cannot fawt to you, thought he shuld dryte in your hands." Penman's Intercepted Letters to Sir George Douglas [circa 1536], [in] Pinkerton's [The] Hist[ory of] Scot[land Under the House of Stuart, volume] ii. [1797]

Jameson's original edition of The Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) contains no entry for drite (or dryte).

Bailey's gloss on the proverbial saying in Dictionarium Britannicum; Or, A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1736) is worth citing as well:

A homely proverb applicable to those who are ever wishing for what they have little reason to hope. We have a more decent proverb to express the same thing, viz. If Wishes were Horses, Beggars would ride.

One early instance in which the expression appears in the wild, as it were, is in "A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, &c.," in A Person of Quality, Essays Serious and Comical: Viz. On the Readers of This Book (1707), which contains the following entry for a (spurious) catalogued title:

Wish in one Hand and Sh——t in t'other. Or, a Question soon resolv'd ; by the profound Astrologer Mr. Fl——d, with the Regulation of the Stars ; an Essay. By the same Author.

It also makes a discreetly partial appearance in Jonathan Swift, Tittle Tattle; Or, Taste A-la-mode: A New Farce (1749):

Col. Witling. Well! I am like the Butcher that was looking for his Knife, and he had it in his Mouth ; I have been searching my Pocket for my Snuff-Box,—and, egad, here 'tis in my Hand.

Miss Notable. Had it been a Bear, it would have bit you, Colonel:—Well, I wish I had such a Snuff-Box.—

Tom Modish. You'll be long enough before you'll wish your Skin full of Eyelet-holes.

Col. Witling. Wish in one Hand-

Miss Notable. Out upon you! Lord! what can the dirty Man mean?

The editor of The Works of Jonathan Swift, D.D., volume 6, Part 1 (1755) remarks on this exchange:

This sentence is remarkably characteristic and beautiful ; by the first it appears that miss [Notable] knew the rest, and by the latter, that in the same breath she laboured to conceal her knowledge.

The euphemistic substitution of spit for shit appears at least as early as Thomas Bridges & Francis Grose, A Burlesque Translation of Homer (1772):

I wish to god we'd both been drown'd / When first we cross'd the herring-pond; / But I may wish and make a pother. / Wish in one hand and spit in t'other / Then ev'ry leather-headed cull / Can guess which hand will first be full.

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    But tacky as a verb, let alone an adjective, gets no traction here. Who said this? How does to tacky mean to shit? Commented May 24 at 2:48
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    @TinfoilHat: It doesn't. My baseless speculation: At some point in the evolution of "wish in one hand and tacky in the other" from "wish in one hand and shit in the other," people started interpreting both wish and shit/spit as nouns instead of as verbs, and a further euphemism from shit/spit to sticky stuffy/tacky stuff emerged, leading to the shortened form tacky. But I haven't attempted to track this hypothetical evolution, and as you indicate it has a number of weaknesses. On the other hand (the untacky one), the idea that the two expressions are unrelated seems dubious, too.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 24 at 4:59
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    I should add that my interpretation of the older form "wish in one hand and shit in the other" includes understanding in to mean something closer to into: "wish into one hand and shit into the other, and see which one will be full first."
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 24 at 5:05
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    Thank you for this substantial improvement on my answer! Some v. quick research suggests that 'drite' is solely a verb. That might be worth noting. (source: online dictionaries inc. oed.com/dictionary/drite_v)
    – aantia
    Commented May 24 at 10:56
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    @aantia: I have updated my answer to direct greater attention to drite. Thank you for pointing out the OED discussion.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented May 24 at 15:22

The phrase is more typically "Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which fills up first."

As you've said, "tacky" can mean "cheap and badly made or vulgar".

As a native UK English speaker, I read this as substituting the word "shit" for "tacky" as it is tacky to swear - especially in front of (or to) children.

This bit of metonymy allows someone to use the evocative phrase while keeping to standards of decency.

  • Already given as an answer. Commented May 23 at 15:26
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    @EdwinAshworth This is the only answer so far that explicitly says that "tacky" refers to its being tacky to swear, which I think is correct.
    – benrg
    Commented May 23 at 17:33
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    @benrg I think that's very far-fetched. Quite possibly a euphemism, but euphemisms are rarely self-referential ('look, I'm a euphemism'). But nobody seems to be able to provide convincing supporting evidence. Commented May 23 at 18:23

It's an idiom that conveys the idea that wishing or wanting something doesn’t lead to tangible results. Essentially, it emphasizes that mere wishes have no practical impact. You can wish or want something until you're blue in the face, but without action, your hand remains empty. It’s often used to humorously dismiss unrealistic desires or expectations. So, in this context, “tacky” symbolizes something that is more realistic..something easily attainable without having to do anything to get it. [1] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Wish%20in%20one%20hand%2C%20shit%20in%20the%20other.

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    Commented May 23 at 1:20
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    That definition doesn't really fit the sentence in the original post. You'd get: "Wish in one hand, an undesirable thing in the other. See which fills up first." That doesn't make much sense.
    – alphabet
    Commented May 23 at 1:55
  • The definition behind the link fits, but the explanation in the answer itself seems vague and confusing to me. It looks like you're considering "tacky," as well as the cruder word used in the variant, to both be nouns, when the full quote from OP's question (including the "see which fills up first part") requires them both to be verbs (along with the word "wish"). So, the expression is saying if you wish into your hand, you'll never fill it up, because wishes are nothing substantial; if you defecate into your hand, it will fill up, because although nasty, poop is real! Commented May 23 at 5:42
  • So, the meaning behind the expression, in any of its variants, seems to be something along the lines of "better to be realistic, even if reality is ugly, than to be idealistic and just end up being disappointed." Commented May 23 at 5:44
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    @EdwinAshworth I thought they might be nouns as well, but that doesn't fit well with the "see which fills up first" - there's no sense of a changing amount if "wish" and "tacky" are nouns. One could say "Put apples in one hand, put oranges in the other, and see which fills up first". But "Apples in one hand, oranges in the other, and see which fills up first" sounds rather strange by eliding the action - it doesn't really imply that either one is being filled up. I suppose it might work conversationally with additional context, though. Commented May 23 at 14:03


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Or that's what comes to mind for me, anyhow.


I took 'wish' to be a synonym for to piss, or urinate, based on the sound. I have come across this: I remember a song about a lobster, which was put 'in the pot where the missus used to wish'. That is what I thought on first reading. I haven't found it in any online thesaurus, though.

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