If someone has the wrong end of the stick it means they've misunderstood something.

If they've got the shitty end of the stick it means they've got a bad deal in some bargain or share-out. This doesn't seem particularly close to the wrong end meaning - so unless someone convinces me different, I'm not inclined to think these idioms share a common origin.

Does anyone know where either or both of these expressions come from?

  • 2
  • 3
    Wait, if you grabbed a stick by the shitty end, you wouldn't think you'd grabbed the wrong end? I would.
    – bee.catt
    Jun 28, 2012 at 21:01
  • 1
    @bee.catt: I guess. But to be honest, even if the shit was on the other end of the stick, I'd rather not have to get that particular stick (I'd rather get either end of a completely non-shitty stick! :) Jun 28, 2012 at 21:14
  • 2
    I see it more often as "the short end of the stick," which wouldn't fit with the outhouse explanations. In fact, I can't figure out how a stick can have a long end or short end.
    – user32047
    Apr 6, 2013 at 12:35
  • 1
    A typical dismissive comment by you, a habit of yours whenever I politely and genuinely propose anything that involves a minimum of "legwork" by the mods. I am in no rush to do as you suggested, (copy and paste the answer, and turn it into a community wiki) as I am almost 100% convinced you would swiftly downvote it. I will; however, post an answer containing a link to that page so it may be of service to future visitors.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2015 at 9:31

15 Answers 15


According to The Phrase Finder, the two share the same origin, not really diverging in meaning until 1850 or so.

  • The link doesn't work for me. This one does: phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/16/messages/241.html May 16, 2012 at 2:57
  • 5
    This is really an inadequate answer, inasmuch as the OP should have insisted that you provided a summary of the meaning behind the two expressions, link rot is an occupational hazard around these parts, and the best answers on EL&U should be self-contained.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30, 2015 at 9:46

Before toilet paper and Sears catalogs, there was a wooden spatula called the stick. If you were in the outhouse after dark and you had to find the stick in the dark, you had a good chance of finding the wrong, dirty, shitty end of the stick. Not everyone could afford candles or lanterns, and sometimes the wind would blow them out anyway.

  • 4
    Is there a source for this?
    – user867
    Dec 6, 2013 at 3:24
  • @Norman Sherrod Folks back then must have had one h*ll of an immune system.
    – AM55
    Mar 22, 2014 at 2:05
  • If there now was such a stick, what was it's purpose?
    – x457812
    Aug 29, 2015 at 14:35
  • 2
    Sorry, are you saying people wiped their rears with a spatula? Hmm.
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2018 at 16:01

When harnessing a matched team, one uses a stick called an "evener" attached by a pin at its center to the wagon or farm implement. Each end of the evener is attached to the harness of each draft animal. When pulling with 2 animals of different size (am unmatched team) one moves the location of the center hole (fulcrum) towards the side near the larger animal. Each animal is then pulling an amount of weight corresponding to its size, thus the term "evener". The larger animal is pulling more of the load because he has the "short end of the stick".

  • 1
    Fascinating. Do you have any supporting references for this? Not that I'm trying to rule it out, but my gut feel is that "load-bearing" sticks are rarely identified by that word (they're usually rods or poles). But perhaps usage was different a long time ago. May 27, 2015 at 20:42
  • I have no linguistic or academic sources, but any good teamster or farrier would use this expression & know what it means. May 27, 2015 at 20:50
  • I'll try to find a source. May 27, 2015 at 21:14
  • The evener I reference is a "double tree". An evener behind a single horse is a single tree An evener is also called a whiffletree,whippletree or sometimes swiveltree. For simplicity's sake, teamsters call all eveners sticks. Poles are attached to wagons & go between two horses hitched as a team. May 28, 2015 at 16:20
  • I have 3 responses to my inquiries. Although the sources not etymological or grammatical, they are real & current vernacular uses of the term. May 28, 2015 at 17:19

The wrong end of the stick is usually explained as having come from Roman culture. Toilet paper had not been invented in Roman times so, they usually used a sponge on a stick, like this http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-AKCoVbCisFw/UCnEu4eqv1I/AAAAAAAAAew/OzR_GuiOqDM/s1600/spongestick.jpg The end with the sponge, was used to clean themselves. If someone was not paying attention when it came time to use a stick, they could pick it up by the wrong end. There is an explanation here http://www.cracked.com/article_16108_the-bizarre-history-10-common-sayings_p2.html

That link also says:

There is, though, another origin that's widely held to be the true one. The origin pertains to walking sticks and accidentally grabbing the dirty, non-handled end, the "wrong end."


Nay, the stick with the shitty end was not used to clean oneself; it was used to knock over the pile of shit lest it become too high and reach the hole. Also, you would want the pile to be relatively flat so that you could dust it with ashes, and thus limit the smell. (Have you people never used an outhouse?)


The "stick" refers to a printer's stick when typeset were physical letters. A novice would often fill the printer stick in the wrong order, in which case, the print would not be as expected, e.g. "print" would appear as 'tnirp', hence, grabbing the wrong end of the stick.


The origin of the two idioms is thought be related to argumentum baculum or the argument of the cudgel (or staff, hence stick). The best explanation can be found here.

The picture is literally that of a master beating a servant. If you get the wrong end of the stick, you are the recipient of the blows from the lucky master who holds the right end.

To say that you get the wrong end of the stick simply implies misunderstanding or wrong facts.

To say that you have the short (or dirty) end of the stick is to have the least desirable part of a bargain or the worst end of a bargain.


According to "The Toilet - an unspoken history" - BBC documentary. Romans sat on communal outhouses - underneath them was running water (non-potable) that carried the waste away. In front of them was running water for washing. They would use sticks with sponges on them to clean their bum. Of course, if it was dark, they were in danger of grabbing the wrong end of the stick. I had lots of questions after this - why weren't the sticks cleaned after each use? Why didn't people have their own personal sticks? What's the point of having two sets of channels for running water and cleanliness - only to have to use a dirty stick?

  • Hi @Jan Perkins, Welcome to ELU. Good answer but I see that you have stated many questions at the end. I need you to recognize that this is not a discussion forum but a Q&A site. You could use the comment section if you still want to ask them or make a separate question for it if it isn't entertained there. Also, it is mandatory to include a link/support/evidence to the BBC documentary or rather any other claim you make here. Please have a look at english.stackexchange.com/help to know how things work here! Oct 29, 2015 at 6:36
  • I have seen this explanation before. In fact, I think it was here, maybe a year ago.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 29, 2015 at 6:41
  • Bring your own sponge.
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2018 at 16:06

It "wrong end of the stick" comes from when a printer loads moveable type on the type form ("the stick") from the left facing up instead the right facing up. If you load from left you have the wrong end of tbe stick.

The short stick comes from when persons draw straws or sticks from a bunch to select sombody for duty or a reward.

  • 2
    This could do with some supporting evidence for the definitions you've given. Sep 20, 2020 at 13:43

Sesame is correct.
The shitty end of stick is to knock the top off the turd cone in an outhouse. The outhouse has no lights so if I put the stick upside down, the next person might grab the shitty end of the stick.

  • 1
    turd cone? That's a new one for me.
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2018 at 16:05
  • 1
    You may want to dig a new hole or call Don's Johns to have your pile sucked out if the cone is high enough you need to knock the top of with a stick. We eat crayons so our poop comes out rainbow colored and keep a "No Shit Stick" Stick coated in teflon next to the toilet. The "No Shit Stick" Stick is for breaking up large solid anaconda sized feces when the family poop scissors are unable to cut through the digested food. Opioid Induced Constipation (OIC) runs in our inbred family of morons that get hurt in construction accidents. A stick and scissors is cheaper than Movantic. Jan 14, 2020 at 21:54

'Grasp the wrong end of the stick'. I suspect that literalist explanations about sticks may be later, as the expression modulated in English from an earlier 'grasp the wrong end of the twig'. Double word-play here, twig from the Scottish Gaelic tuig = to understand.

  • 1
    Interesting, but I think your etymology is unlikely. OED records twig = watch, look at, inspect from 1764, with "origin unascertained". But the cognate understand, comprehend sense isn't recorded until 1815. Apr 2, 2014 at 23:02

Just watched a youtube video on the subject called the great stink! https://youtu.be/MJWLJxiWgDY It goes back to Romans and Hadrians Wall. There was a laddle used to wash your backside off. Sometimes, you could grab the "wrong end of the stick"

  • Aha, so a ladle, not a stick? Not: laddle.....:)
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2018 at 16:06

In the 1980's I led an ODA funded project to improve wast management and sanitation in Kumasi, Ghana' second city. One aspect of the project was to improve latrine design on which we cooperated with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Most villages around Kumasi could not afford water-borne sanitation and so used latrines which were run very efficiently as a village service. A field was reserved for the purpose an a block of latrines was in use until filled and then the buildings move progressively around the perimeter of the field and by the time a complete circuit had been made the original deposits had been composted. The huts were of quite sophisticated design, tepee like, with a funnel to a hole in the roof to create and air-draft to expell smell and insects. There was, of course, no toilet paper and neither the luxury of runnning water. Some places used large leaves but mostly each villager had their own stick which was left propped up outside rather like cues in a snooker hall. It was obviously important go hold the right end. There may of course be other derivations from other places but that was certainly the usage from Ghana. Geoff Mills


This is the best answer I came up with.

This phrase refers to a walking stick held upside down, which does not help a walker much. Originating in the 1400s as worse end of the staff, this term was changed to the current wording only in the late 1800s.

Alternative: The Romans invented the flush toilet, but not toilet paper; and their lavatories were communal affairs, where one would go and chew the fat over the day's happenings with whoever else was in at the time. Personal cleanliness was addressed with a cloth or a sponge which lived in a bowl of water at one end of the lavatorium, and which was passed from person to person by means of a stick. It is easy - if rather stomach-churning - to imagine someone deep in conversation not looking when the stick was passed to them, and therefore getting hold of the wrong end of it. Thanks to Robert Day.
English for Students


A means to clean ones own behind. When Romans had slaves the stick was passed from slave to Roman and back again after use, hence someone (usually the slave) occasionally got the shitty end of the stick. Common in shared communal outhouses. I have seen period art depicting this also. If anyone has watched the tv series Spartacus then you would have seen some footage depicting this also. I would say that there would be many common references that this saying would have came from.

  • Welcome to ELU, Daniel. Do you have any other credible sources that support this thesis?
    – ScotM
    Jul 2, 2015 at 0:36
  • 1
    Unless Roman slaves were complaining in English about toilet duty or you can show some Latin equivalent that Caesar brought with him, this is merely folk etymology. Doesn't mean it's wrong; just means there's no way to verify it. And, no, watching a TV series doesn't count. I'd recommend you withdraw your answer.
    – deadrat
    Jul 2, 2015 at 0:37

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.