The Grammarphobia Blog

A sticky question

Q: My husband and I have been wondering about the origin of the phrase “get on the stick.” What stick?

A: I’ve been swamped with questions lately, which is why I’ve taken so long to answer this one, but I’ve finally managed to get on the stick.

The expression – meaning to get busy, get going, or get down to work – dates from the early 1900s and comes from the idea of getting a car going by using the gearshift, or stick, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “get on the stick” is derived from the shorter phrase “on the stick” (meaning “efficient, aware, in control”). Cassell’s says the stick in the phrases represents “the gearstick of a car or joystick of an aircraft, both of which exert control.”

Another reference, Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, notes that “stick” has been used colloquially to mean “joystick” since about 1925 and originated in the Royal Air Force.

“Joystick” itself, meaning the control level in a plane, was first recorded in 1910, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has since widened to mean any kind of control lever.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes that “joystick” has also been used to refer to a penis (1916), an opium pipe (1936), and a marijuana cigarette (1962). Slang is fertile – it begets more slang!

Although nearly all the references I’ve consulted say the stick in “get on the stick” is either a gearshift or a joystick, I did find one respectable dissenting opinion.

In “The Argot of the Dice Table,” a 1950 paper by David W. Maurer in the journal American Speech, the expression is defined this way: “To work at the crap table, either as a dealer or stick-man.”

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.