Getting the bad end of a deal or receiving the least desirable outcome from something.
Example: My uncle took my brothers and me out fishing. There were enough fishing rods for all four of us and we got to pick which one we wanted to use. However, I got to pick last, so I feel like I got the short end of the stick because mine was smaller and less sturdy than the others, but that’s okay, I’ll still catch the biggest fish!
Short End Of The Stick – Origin
This saying has existed since at least the 1500s, but it was said a bit differently back then. During those times, this expression was said as ‘the worst end of the staff.’ Despite the different wording from the modern version, from what I can tell, it’s meaning was still similar. This older version appeared 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.”
The transition from the word ‘staff’ to ‘stick’ happened as early as the mid-16th century according to the writings of John Heywood. He lived during those times and he was a writer and collector of proverbs. 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.’ “
The earliest I could find the modern version of this phrase in print is from the late 19th century. For example, here’s 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.”
- As part of their lunch, the kids at school received a small pack of carrots with ranch dip. However, the little ranch cup was missing from Tom’s pack. So while everyone else had something to dip their carrots in, Tom did not. He felt like he got the short end of the stick, but someone next to him decided to share.
Note: KYP has the meanings for numerous phrases and sayings, and even the origins for them too! However, the origins for most idioms are unclear. Often times, the origins you see listed are plausible theories to how an idiom came to be, but not necessarily so. The quotes you see that contain the phrase are the oldest that I could find. However, it’s very possible there are older recordings somewhere, so if you know of any, let me know!
In addition, keep in mind that just because a newspaper from 1850 uses a saying, that does not mean it originated in that year, nor does it mean it originated from that newspaper. Really, if it’s already being used in a newspaper, than it’s probably from an earlier time. The purpose of these old quotes is to show how old some phrases go back in history.