If a person gets the ‘short end of the stick,’ that means they got the bad end of a deal. In other words, they received the least desirable outcome from something.
Short End Of The Stick – Origin
This saying has existed since at least the 16th century. However, it was said differently back then. During that time, Instead of ‘the short end of the stick,’ the expression was ‘the worst end of the staff.’ Despite the differences, its meaning was still similar as far as I understand. This older version (the one with ‘staff’ in it) makes an appearance in Nicolas Udall’s translation of Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte, quicke, wittie and sentencious saiynges, 1542:
“Which as often as thei see theim selfes to haue the worse ende of the staffe in their cause.”
According to The Phrase Finder, the transition from the word ‘staff’ to ‘stick’ happened around the mid-16th century according to the writings of John Heywood. He was a writer and collector of proverbs who lived at that time. He wrote a book called The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood in 1562, and in it he explains:
“Staff, ‘the worse end of the staff’, we now say ‘wrong end of the stick.’ “
What about this phrase with the exact wording it has today? The earliest example I have seen in print is from the late 19th century. For instance, here is a quote from the Bar Harbor Record newspaper, 1895:
“There was a horse and hog trade consummated in Bar Harbor last week between two well known men which has been the topic of discussion ever since, and it is a question as to who got the short end of the stick.”
- Tom felt like he got the short end of the stick because every other kid at lunch got ranch dip for their carrots, but he did not.
- Everyone agreed to split the cake, but it looks like I received the short end of the deal since I was handed the smallest piece.