Q From John Jefferies: An article in the Irish Times recently gave examples of words and phrases associated with the printing trade that have found their way into everyday English language usage. I’m unsure about the writer’s explanation of getting the wrong end of the stick as being linked to printing. Do you agree with it?
A There are actually two idioms here. If somebody today gets the wrong end of the stick, he or she has misunderstood the facts in a case or misunderstood some story. An older version — not so much heard now, I think, and often with have instead of get — means to have the worst of a bargain or an argument. A related idiom with the second meaning is get the short end of the stick.
The writer based his suggestion for the origin of getting the wrong end of the stick on the ancient sense of stick — an abbreviation of composing-stick — for the hand-held device a typesetter used for composing text from individual letters. This story has often been retold, with the explanation that if a compositor set type in the stick incorrectly he got the wrong end of the stick. It is certainly incorrect, not least because you had to be an extremely incompetent typesetter to hold the composing stick wrongly.
Other suggestions have been made. A common one is that it referred to a walking stick. The bottom end would often become coated with mud and other detritus so that to get hold of the stick by the wrong end would be a messy error. A ruder version, getting the shit end of the stick, makes the point more forcefully, as does “Which of us had hold of the crappy ... end of the stick?”, which appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide in the 1840s. Some writers have sought a classical justification by pointing to the Roman lavatory practice of cleaning their backsides with a stridulum, a sponge on a stick; picking up the wrong end of a stick already used by somebody else would undoubtedly be unpleasant.
The pioneering philologist Walter Skeat suggested in 1895 that the source was a master beating his servant:
The right end of the stick was that held in the master’s hand, whilst the other was the wrong end, or (as our American cousins would say) the “business end”. The servant would naturally “get hold of the wrong end of the stick,” but it would not much avail him, it would soon be wrested from him, and the result would be more stick.
This suggestion is supported by the oldest example of the idiom that I’ve unearthed so far, though as the writer clearly expects readers to know the idiom, it must have been well established by then:
This florid opinion, directly contrary to matter of fact, is the wrong end of the stick — the argumentum baculinum, which you unfortunately got hold of.
The Morning Post (London), 29 Jul. 1820. The Latin tag argumentum baculinum literally means “the argument of the cudgel”, in other words an appeal to force.
Further support comes from a widely recorded older version, to have the worst end of the staff:
God sent the spirit of division between them, so that the Sichemites began to despise him, and rebell against him, but they had the worst end of the staffe, and were overcome by him: who pursuing the victory, tooke their city by force, and put them all to the edge of the sword.
The Theatre of Gods Judgements, by Thomas Beard and Thomas Taylor, 1643.
Neither of these examples is conclusive, but it certainly suggests that somebody getting the wrong end of the stick is figuratively on the losing end of an argument that has turned physical. They may also explain short end of the stick — the idea may be that the wielder of the stick is holding the long end and the victim the short one.
The modern British idiom to give somebody (some) stick, to threaten a person or criticise them severely, contains the same idea of physical assault but may be an independent invention.