The Grammarphobia Blog

Shake that stick

Q: Please comment on “shake a stick at.” I’ve heard that the expression comes from using a stick to count a passing flock of sheep.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as meaning “more than one can count, a considerable amount or number.” The saying originated in – and is chiefly heard in – the US, according to the dictionary.

The OED’s first published reference, from the Lancaster (Pa.) Journal in 1818, is in a slightly different form: “We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at.”

Nobody knows for sure the origin of “shake a stick” in this context, though it could be, as you say, that pointing with a stick was a means of counting. And too many things to count could be more than you can shake a stick at.

It could also be that shaking a stick was a hostile gesture. If there was a vast amount of something and it was more than someone could cope with, he might “shake his stick at” it.

I did come across a something else on the Web. The frontiersman Davy Crockett, in his Tour to North and Down East (1835), wrote about an inn: “This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at.” This is quoted in Charles Earle Funk’s book Heavens to Betsy.

In short, we may never know for sure where this shaking-a-stick business comes from. But your explanation is as good as any.

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