phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Phrases, Sayings and Idioms Home > Discussion Forum

Carrot ON a stick

Posted by ESC on February 12, 2000

In Reply to: Still researching posted by ESC on February 11, 2000

: : : : : : : : Does anyone know the origin of the "carrot & stick" metaphor?

: : : : : : : CARROT AND STICK - I thought the origin of this expression was pretty clear. Mules are stubborn so some enterprising farmer rigged up a stick with a carrot on a string that would dangle in front of the mule, a few inches from his nose. The mule could never get close enough to take a bite but would keep running to try and "catch up" with the carrot. That's the image I have - a fishing pole device attached to a mule's back. It may be something I've seen in a book.

: : : : : : : Anyway, I didn't realize there was a mystery. Then I looked up the expression in the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977). It says: ".carrot and stick. A riddle that seems to have confounded many students of language is the origin of the carrot and stick expression. Research in Aesop's Fables, the Uncle Remus folk tales and other such sources didn't turn up any answers."

: : : : : : : Mr. and Mrs. Morris cite a couple of instances where the expression was used -- a speech by Winston Churchill and the movie "Maltese Falcon" but it sounds like the animal was tempted with a carrot and beaten with a stick. I am sure this is wrong. The stick is used to keep the carrot out front, not to hit the animal. Mr. Churchill in a press conference, May 25, 1943, states: 'We shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick,".

: : : : : : : I hate to say this but I believe Mr. Churchill and Mr. and Mrs. Morris got it wrong.

: : : : : : Now I'm on a quest to prove that I'm right and Winston Churchill was wrong. Here's one site that agrees with me - and it's a Christian forum too. That should count extra points:
: : : : : : "The dumb farmer is the one who keeps on beating a dumb animal. The smart farmer straps a long stick over the donkey's head and ties a carrot to the end of the stick. The donkey wants the carrot, so he steps forward to get it and the carrot moves forward. Pretty soon, the donkey is moving on without getting his hind- end all blistered up and the farmer gets what he wants without being an angry moron." (ESC)

: : : : : :

: : : : : ESC,

: : : : : I'm with Winnie on this one. The OED says:

: : : : : stick-and-carrot adj. phr.
: : : : : characterized by both the threat of punishment and the offer of reward;

: : : : : Gary

: : : : I have to offer a (rare) dissent, too. I hear the phrase most often used as carrot OR stick, with the notion of choice embedded in it. Positive or negative reinforcement. Bribes or beatings. Orchids or onions. (From Bob)

: : :
: : : We have a the nearest thing to a donkey round here - a Shetland pony which my daughter rides - and we conducted an experiment. We tied a carrot - organic washed in clean spring water - to a long piece of bamboo and tried to encourage the pony (Fanny by name) to move forward under this inducement.

: : : I have to report that after 2 hours of effort and much mirth we came to the conclusion that it was a most impractical device and Fanny very quickly concluded that the carrot was a mirage, and ignored it.

: : : How else were we to amuse ourselves on a midweek day off? (Farmer)

: Well, see, it doesn't work with Shetland ponies. According to the Institute for Equine Behavioral Modification at the University of Kentucky, it only works on donkeys and mules. That's why you weren't able to move your Fanny. (ESC)

Now see here; our Fanny is a little goer, very intelligent (may even surf the net for all I know) so don't cast aspersions. My daughter thinks her parents are just a little eccentric - 'mad as hatters' is her expression. (Farmer)

By Bob
: : Fanny shouted and whinnied, of course,
: : 'Til she lost her voice and tapped Morse,
: : "The carrot was phony!
: : You can't fool this pony,
: : Now I'm just a little hoarse."

: You're a laff riot. That's great. I am still researching. I've put in an inquiry with Word Detective online. Imagine my surprise when I was reading the guy's bio online. It turns out the Word Detective is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Morris. Small world. So I am asking him for information that will prove his parents wrong about a phrase origin. Stay tuned.

I got an automated e-mail from the son of Mr. and Mrs. Morris. But I had some luck in a different direction. I was having trouble finding anything on the web under "carrot and stick." Then I realized (An Aha! Moment) that the expression is more properly (I still insist) "carrot ON a stick." So I searched again and found this. It has "evidence" for both sides. I think.

'Carrot on a stick' vs. 'the carrot or the stick.'
The Usenet Newsgroup alt.usage.english has debated this expression several
times, most recently in spring 1998. No one there presented definitive evidence,
but dictionaries agree that the proper expression is "the carrot or the stick".

One person on the Web mentions an old 'Little Rascals' short in which an animal
was tempted to forward motion by a carrot dangling from a stick. I think the
image is much older than that, going back to old magazine cartoons (certainly
older than the animated cartoons referred to by correspondents on
alt.usage.english); but I'll bet that the cartoon idea stemmed from loose
association with the original phrase "the carrot or the stick" rather than the
other way around.

An odd variant is the claim broadcast on National Public Radio
March 21, 1999 that one Zebediah Smith originated this technique of motivating
stubborn animals. This is almost certainly an urban legend.

Note that the people who argue for "carrot on a stick" never cite any
documentable early use of the supposed "correct" expression. For the record,
here's what the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the
subject: "carrot, sb. Add: 1. a. fig. [With allusion to the proverbial method of
tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it.] An enticement, a
promised or expected reward; freq. contrasted with "stick" (=punishment) as the

[Skipping references to uses as early as 1895 which refer only to the carrot so
don't clear up the issue.]
"1948 Economist 11 Dec. 957/2 The material shrinking of rewards and lightening
of penalties, the whittling away of stick and carrot. [Too bad the Economist's
writer switched the order in the second part of this example, but the
distinction is clear.]
"1954 J. A. C. Brown Social Psychol.of Industry i. 15 The tacit implication that
. . .most men . . . are . . . solely motivated by fear or greed (a motive now
described as 'the carrot or the stick')
"1963 Listener 21 Feb. 321/2 Once Gomulka had thrown away the stick of
collectivization, he was compelled to rely on the carrot of a price system
favourable to the peasant."

The debate has been confused from time to time by imagining one stick from which
the carrot is dangled and another kept in reserve as a whip; but I imagine that
the original image in the minds of those who developed this expression was a
donkey or mule laden with cargo rather than being ridden, with its master
alternately holding a carrot in front of the animal's nose (by hand, not on a
stick) and threatening it with a switch. Two sticks are too many to make for a
neat expression.

For me, the clincher is that no one actually cites the form of the 'original
expression.' In what imaginable context would it possibly be witty or memorable
to say that someone or something had been motivated by a carrot on a stick? Why
not an apple on a stick, or a bag of oats? Boring, right? Not something likely
to pass into popular usage.

This saying belongs to the same general family as "you can draw more flies with
honey than with vinegar." It is never used except when such contrast is implied."