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Carrot and stick

Q From Norm Brust: Your recent item on carrotmobbing makes a slight reference to carrot and stick and its popular usage to describe rewards and punishments intended to motivate a person. This is a corruption of the original metaphor which implies an incentive system in which the prize seems within easy reach but can never be attained. The source is a trick concocted by men who use asses as beasts of burden. They suspend a carrot from a stick tied to the back of the animal’s neck in such a way that the carrot hangs a foot or so in front of the animal’s muzzle. The normally stubborn ass, thinking it is within easy reach of a tasty morsel, moves forward to grasp it but, of course, never quite does. Do you know how this change in meaning came about?

A Strangely, few of my reference books discuss this neat little metaphor in any detail and none of them suggest a source. I can’t give you the full story, since nobody seems to know it, but some pointers are possible to its age and development. They show that the trick you mention was only ever a joke.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for carrot in the figurative sense of something presented as an inducement to action, with its earliest example being from 1895. Here’s an earlier one:

He never had carrots dangled before his nose, and he hoped he never would have, but if any one did such a thing, he would get a very sharp answer.

In a debate in the House of Representatives in New Zealand in 1872.

Though figurative, it must refer to the even older literal idea of a carrot being flourished as encouragement in front of a draft animal. I’d guess that the idea is as old as draught animals (the OED describes it as proverbial). However, the oldest reference to a donkey I can find is this:

But all nature says, “Lead! don’t drive!” from the experiment of the carrot-persuaded donkey.

The Eclectic Magazine, New York, Aug. 1851.

I surmise that the animal was given the reward when it obeyed, otherwise the carrot would quickly cease to encourage. The trick of suspending the carrot in front of the animal on a stick that was attached to it — and so forming a reward that was forever out of reach — must have come along later as a comic idea.

But that morning, as I rode along, there flashed into my mind a cartoon I had once seen of a donkey race, in which the victory had been won by an ingenious jockey who held a carrot on the end of a stick a foot or two in front of his ass’s nose. In its eagerness to reach the carrot, the donkey put on such a tremendous burst of speed that it immediately outstripped its competitors and won the race.

Through Russia on a Mustang, by Thomas Stevens, 1890. Similar prose images appear in a lecture by William Arnot dated 1860 and in a German work of 1851 (thanks go to Evan Kirshenbaum and Donna Richoux for telling me about these). The comic image seems to have been a humorous staple.

Real donkeys, as I say, are too intelligent to be fooled by such a stratagem for very long, and the idea behind the recorded examples of a figurative carrot was that it was an actual inducement, not the false promise of one.

The combination of carrot and stick must surely have always referred to a mixture of reward and punishment. The image is of the animal being offered a tasty encouragement at one end while being thumped with a stick at the other. It is of the nineteenth century in English:

It was this carrot and stick discipline to which Mr. John Mill was subjected, and which he accepted dutifully as flowing from that perfect wisdom of which up to this time his father had been the representative.

The Reality of Duty: As Illustrated by the Autobiography of Mr John Stuart Mill, by Lord Blatchford; Contemporary Review, August 1876.

What shows beyond a doubt that the idiom is based on a combination of a real reward and a real punishment is that most European languages include either a direct equivalent or a related one. Subscribers tell me that it occurs in Italian (bastone e carota), though the order is inverted, as it is also in Spanish (el palo y la zanahoria), Polish (kij i marchewka) and Finnish (keppiä tai porkkanaa). French has the same word order as English: de la carotte et du bâton. Other languages have related idioms: in German it is mit Zuckerbrot und Peitsche, “with sweet bread and whip”, though Zuckerbrot doesn’t appear in modern German except in this idiom; Danish has pisk eller gulerod, whip or carrot; Russians say knut i pryanik, a whip and a gingerbread.

Curiously, there’s a long gap between the Contemporary Review example of 1876 and the next one on record:

Thus by every device, from the stick to the carrot, the emaciated Austrian donkey is made to pull the Nazi barrow up an ever-steepening hill.

Winston Churchill, in a letter dated 6 July 1938. My thanks to Jan Freeman, who found this quoted in a long-ago column by William Safire. The sentence has been widely anthologised.

It next appears in articles in The Economist in July 1946 and again in the same magazine two years later. Since Sir Winston’s letter was not publicly known, it looks as though it was these articles that kick-started the widespread modern use of the expression. In particular, since the 1946 article was reproduced in its entirety in Time magazine, it introduced the idiom to north Americans (the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, which reproduced part of the article, was struck by its novelty, calling it “an arresting metaphor”). But the evidence from other languages, added to the sparse English examples, strongly suggest that the idea had long been part of our shared European culture. It must have been kicking around informally in English for at least the last century. The lack of written examples must surely just be a quirk of recording.

There may be nothing new under the sun, but sometimes finding that out is a tortuous business.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 21 Feb. 2009
Last updated: 7 Mar. 2009

Advice on copyright

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Last modified: 7 March 2009.