Posted by Bruce Kahl on June 26, 2000
In Reply to: More than you can shake a stick at posted by John Drennan on June 26, 2000
I found no definitive origins just a bunch of maybes:
Your phrase is fairly old. Its first (??) recorded appearance is found in The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Journal in 1818: "We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at." The sense then, as now, was "a lot" or "too many to count."
Shaking a stick at someone has long been considered, for good reason, a threatening gesture. There is a possibility that "more than you can shake a stick at" first arose in the context of warfare or smaller-scale hostilities, perhaps describing an overwhelmingly superior opposing force (e.g., "More Redcoats than you could shake a stick at.").
Another possibility is the stick in question was shaken in the process of counting great numbers of something, perhaps used as a pointer while doing a head count of a herd of sheep or cattle. Thus, "more than you can shake a stick at" would simply mean, figuratively, "you could wave your counting stick until your arm falls off, and you still wouldn't reach the end."