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Strauss's avatar

To what exactly does the "carrot-and-stick" metaphor refer?

Asked by Strauss (21791points) June 16th, 2010

For most of my life, when I heard the reference to the carrot/stick, I would visualize a beast of burden (horse, mule, ox, etc.) who does not wish to pull the load (cart, wagon, etc), being enticed by the promise of a carrot as a reward, as cited in this article. It seems that over the last couple decades (subjectively speaking), there has been a drift of meaning of the metaphor, referring to the carrot as the reward and the stick as punishment, as per the Wikipedia article. Which of these is more accurate?

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7 Answers

Trillian's avatar

I never questioned this and your first link does not work, so I don’t know what it says. But the carrot is dangled on a string in front of the mule via a long stick to make it walk, always kept out of his reach. It is not a reward because he never gets it, it’s an enticement. The stick is kept in reserve for the mule who won’t walk for the carrot.

gailcalled's avatar

All figurative speech starts as a concrete example. Therefore they’re both accurate, like shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped.

marinelife's avatar

Your link does not work. As @gailcalled said, both are accurate.

wilma's avatar

I always thought of it as an enticement, as @Trillian said.
I never thought of the stick being used as punishment.

Strauss's avatar

Here’s the link.

Talk about your enticement with no reward! LOL!

Jeruba's avatar

I have been hearing this expression for decades and always though the carrot was in front, as a lure, and the stick behind, as a prompt, the idea being that if one didn’t work, the other would.

Buttonstc's avatar

Jeruba has it correctl.

I assume you’ve heard the expression “beat him like a rented mule”. Ideally, with a mule which belongs to you, it’s better if he’ll respond to the carrot. But mules have a reputation for stubborness, so the stick is held in reserve.

But in the case of a rented mule, perhaps the carrot is dispensed with and just the stick is used.

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