Short Ends

“The short end of the stick” makes no sense. A stick could be “long” or “short,” but how can the end of a stick be one or the other? And if an end did have a length, wouldn’t it be the length of the stick, making both ends the same length—so that you couldn’t tell them apart based on length?

More importantly, how did I go this long using the phrase without pausing to wonder at its incoherence?

(1) After you break it in the tussle over who should have it, there’s a long end and a short end. And the loser is the guy with the short end.

(2) Imagine a stick off-center on a balance, like a badly designed see-saw. The one on the long end enjoys more leverage and finds moving it easy; the one on the short end has a lousy deal.

Of course, there’s scholarship on this issue.

Google reveals more:

  1. Wikipedia:

    The split tally is a technique which became common in medieval Europe which was constantly short of money (coins) and predominantly illiterate in order to record bilateral exchange and debts. A stick (squared Hazelwood sticks were most common) was marked with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way both of the two halves record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof. Later this technique was refined in various ways and became virtually tamper proof. One of the refinements was to make the two halves of the stick of different lengths. The longer part was called stock and was given to the party which had advanced money or (other items) to the receiver. Hence the word stockholder. The debtor, on the other hand, “got the short end of the stick”. Thus, this modern expression for being the loser in any transaction.

  2. Two somewhat plausible explanations:

    Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn’t want you to stay very long, he would give you a “short stick.”

    In the days of outhouses, often there were outhouses with multiple “holes” so that more than one person could relieve him(her)self at a time. Before the time of toilet paper, Sears catalogs and corn cobs, a stick shaped like a shoe horn was used for “hygienic cleaning.” It was rather a short spatula device with a longer handle. Well, if one person was done, he could request that the person using the adjoining hole pass the stick. Of course the person with the stick would pass it holding onto the other person by holding the long end of the stick. The recipient would therefore receive it holding the “short end of the stick.”

  3. The worst explanation(s) I found. I won’t dignify it with a quotation.

Wow. Thanks Steven. That’s very informative.

I was thinking perhaps a “drumstick”/wishbone explanation. But after reading Steven’s explanation, I am afraid it has no historical support. This is, however, a possible etymology for a lucky break (PDF link).