The Grammarphobia Blog

Carrot and/or stick

Q: I heard an NPR newscaster say that the U.S. is “offering Iran a package of carrots and sticks.” Does the phrase come from the idea of a carrot on a stick (an image burned into my brain by Warner Brothers cartoons) or is it a metaphor for reward and punishment (i.e., you get a carrot when you’re good and you get whacked when you’re bad)? If the latter, shouldn’t the newscaster have said the U.S. is “offering Iran a choice of carrots or sticks”?

A: This question came up some time ago during one of my monthly appearances on the Leonard Lopate Show, and the callers fell into two camps, both apparently correct!

“The carrot AND the stick” version usually refers to a temptation (carrot dangling from stick, as in the Warner Brothers cartoons). “The carrot OR the stick” version refers to the contrast between reward (carrot) and punishment (stick).

The Oxford English Dictionary cites both but says the oldest is the “allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.” The OED gives published references going back to 1895 for the dangling-carrot image and to 1948 for the reward-vs.-punishment image.

Personally, I’m in the kinder and gentler carrot-dangling-from-stick camp. But when I expressed my opinion on the show, I was surprised to find that most listeners disagreed. Although the temptation metaphor came first, the reward-punishment image seems to be the more common one these days.

PS: One listener later e-mailed me that Winston Churchill combined both images at a wartime press conference in 1943 when he said that “we shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick.”