On the stick, to get

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective: I just told my daughter to “get on the stick,” meaning get her application completed to finish her degree. I am stumped. Where does the phrase “get on the stick” originate? — Barbara, Bristol, CT.

That’s a good question. And it was a good question when you sent it to me quite a while ago, which is to say that your daughter must not only have finished her degree by now but might actually be nearing retirement. Gee, time flies, doesn’t it? That’s probably because, and you heard it here first, time itself is shrinking. Seriously. I did some tests recently, and my weeks have shrunk to just parts of two days: Monday afternoon and between two and three a.m. on Saturday. No wonder I never get anything done. I make all these great plans for the week on Monday, and next thing I know I’m walking the dogs at 2:30 a.m. Saturday.

To “get on the stick” means, of course, to “get working” or to “get going,” especially to begin doing something that you should have started doing long ago but have been putting off. Some sources I have found date the appearance of the phrase to the 1950s, but others assert that it arose at the beginning of the 20th century. I suspect that it may actually be much older, as I’ll explain in a moment.

“Stick” is, of course, a very old word, derived from a Germanic root that carried the sense of “pierce or prick,” a sense still find in the verb “to stick” when we speak of “sticking” someone with a needle. (The “adhere, fasten firmly” sense of “to stick” comes from the idea of something sharp being embedded or something fastened to something with nails.)

In addition to its basic meaning of “staff or rod of wood” or “branch or twig from a tree,” the noun “stick” has acquired a dizzying array of specialized, figurative and, predictably, slang meanings. For example, we speak of “grabbing the wrong (or dirty) end of the stick” meaning to be given a bad break, “to beat someone with a stick,” meaning to berate them on a particular topic, and, my personal fave, “the sticks” meaning rural areas, which do indeed seem to have more than their fair share of vegetation. Interestingly, when we call a person who is hidebound, unadventurous and just generally no fun a “stick-in-the-mud,” we’re using the “adhere” sense of the verb “to stick” to compare them to someone literally immovably stuck in deep mud.

The accepted explanation of “get on the stick” in dictionaries of slang ties the “stick” to either the gearshift of an automobile or the control stick (aka “joystick”) of a small airplane, the logic being that both devices confer control, and thus that an exhortation to “get on the stick” means “get going.” That strikes me as a fairly large leap of logic, but, in any case, both the airplane and auto theories would necessitate the phrase appearing no earlier than the beginning of the 20th century.

But I strongly suspect that “get on the stick” is a derivative of the much older phrase “to cut one’s stick,” meaning “to leave,” which appeared in print in the early 19th century and was probably in colloquial use long before then. The “stick” in the phrase is a walking stick, commonly used on long journeys by foot in those days, and finding, cutting and smoothing a suitable stick in preparation for such a trip was as sure a sign the person was truly leaving as packing a carry-on bag would be today. Thus to say “get your stick and get on it,” or just “get on the stick,” would have been a way to say “get going.” It also would have carried exactly the same “get up and get moving” sense in figurative use (“Get on the stick and get that job done”) that the phrase does today, which the “joystick” and “gearshift” explanations don’t really convey.

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