Posted by ESC on June 27, 2000
In Reply to: More than you can shake a stick at posted by Bruce Kahl 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."
Here's what Mr. Funk says:
TO SHAKE A STICK AT - "Although this does have a literal meaning, to threaten with a stick, we in the United States give it much more fanciful interpretation. If we say, 'There are more filling stations in town than one can shake a stick at,' we mean nothing more than that the town contains an abundance of places at which one may purchase gasoline for one's motorcar. That American usage dates from early in the nineteenth century. One may speculate that it arose from the play at warfare by small boys - George Washington Jones flourishing a triumphant wooden sword over the considerable number of British soldiers who surrendered at Yorktown, more, in fact, than he could wave his 'stick' at. Then, too, we use the expression to indicate a comparative that may express derogation, and have done so for well over a hundred years. David Crockett, in his "Tour to North and Down East" , wrote of one place at which he stayed, 'This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at." From "Heavens to Betsy" (1955, Harper & Row) by Charles Earle Funk.