General Question

timothykinney's avatar

What does "short end of the stick" really mean?

Asked by timothykinney (2738points) July 12th, 2009

It seems like a stick is just a stick, there’s no short end or long end. Does it just mean you got less than half of the stick?

Does anyone know where this phrase originates?

I do understand how to use this phrase in language, just wondering what it would mean literally.

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9 Answers

DarkScribe's avatar

There are all manner of theories, but most of the more likely seeming are those that are to do with a lever or fulcrum, as in carrying/moving a load, or in old style farmer’s scales. If it wasn’t properly balanced, the one with short end was disadvantaged.

The scale would consist of a notched stick with baskets suspended at each end and a series of known weights used to measure the weight of produce being offered. If the merchant buying the produce shortened one end, he could make the seller appear to be providing less than he was.

MrItty's avatar

I assumed it’s the same as “drew the short straw”. ie, when trying to determine who has to do something, someone grabs a stick, breaks it into two unequal parts, and then holds both parts in his hand so that the comparative lengths are not visible. Someone then picks one of the available ends of the stick. Who ever gets the short end has to do it.

whitenoise's avatar

I understood it came from a game similar to drawing straws. A stick was picked up and in turn people clamp their fist around it, gradually going along the stick, until you end up being the last one to still get a bit of stick. You’d then be the volunteer, having ended up with the short end of the stick.

jpasq03's avatar

As a phrase it means you lose or things don’t go well.

marinelife's avatar

There are a lot of somewhat spurious attributions of the etymology for this phrase (to wit, the one about outhouse sticks being passed). I think this simple explanation is most likely correct:

“The short end of the stick, which first appeared in print in the mid-1800’s, refers to the old custom of fighting with sticks or staffs; whoever holds the short end is at a disadvantage.”

From the NY Times.

Blondesjon's avatar

i thought it had to do with eponymous hipster peeing all over his hand.

marinelife's avatar

@BJ By George, I think you have it!

timothykinney's avatar

@Marina : That’s a good source, but I don’t understand how having a shorter stick means you have the “short end of the stick”. When I hear “short end of the stick” I think of one stick with two ends and two people that have either end. :/

marinelife's avatar

@timothykinney Well, my stick fighting skills are not that hot, but I think it is an issue of leverage. Perhaps we have some stick fighters on Fluther.

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