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Q From Sara Lorimer: I’ve read in a few places that stick-in-the-mud comes from the English habit of burying convicted pirates up to their necks in mud at low tide. This sounds unlikely, but intriguing. Do you know if this is true? And if so, how on earth did it come to mean a boring person?

A Isn’t folk etymology inventive? Much more fun than boring old lexicography. Firstly, so far as I know there was never any such procedure for punishing pirates, or anybody else for that matter. Even in older times that would have been regarded as cruel and unnatural punishment. They were just hanged at Tyburn, like any other self-respecting criminal. Secondly, the more prosaic, but much more probable, answer is that it is just the most recent of a number of expressions of similar type implying being stuck in or held fast by something. Earlier examples were to stick in the briars and to stick in the mire, which were used for a person who has got himself into a difficulty or trouble from which he is having trouble extricating himself. Stick-in-the-mud seems to have been modelled on these earlier forms but was first recorded in 1733 with essentially the modern meaning: a person who is stolid and unimaginative, content with his lot and unprepared to make an effort to improve it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jul. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sti1.htm
Last modified: 10 July 1999.