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The meaning and origin of the expression: Come to a sticky end

Come to a sticky end

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Come to a sticky end'?

'Come to a sticky end' is used to mean come to a grim, violent fate or an unpleasant demise.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Come to a sticky end'?

The phrase finds its roots in early 19th-century criminal slang. At that time, 'sticky' was used to describe any kind of trouble or difficulty, and 'end' referred to the consequences of one's actions. Thus, 'coming to a sticky end' originally meant facing the unfortunate outcomes or repercussions of one's deeds. More recently it has been used to refer to a bloody death or, more generally, a calamitous failure.

The earliest use in print that I know of is from the Queensland, Australia newspaper The Warwick Argus, November 1897:

Ministers have at last arrived at the conclusion that it is not desirable that he [Sir Thomas McIlwraith] should continue a member of the Executive, even in name. Sir Thomas has received a friendly hint to this effect, and Ministers now await his resignation. If it is not forthcoming within a reasonable time the equivalent for a writ of supersedeas will issue. What a “sticky” end to such a “rockety” career.

The expression became quite widely use in UK newspapers from the early 1900s and it isn't clear whether it was coined in the UK or Oz.

While it may seem obvious that 'a sticky end' relates to a death involving the victim being bathed in his/her own blood, the origin could lie elsewhere. Other adhesive substances may have been in the mind of whoever coined this expression.

Birdlime is a sticky substance made from the bark of trees and was used by bird-catchers to trap birds. A sticky end certainly awaited any bird that got entangled in birdlime.

Come to a sticky endAnother possible source was the sticky flypapers that adorned every British home in the early 1900s.

Whatever the source of the stickiness, the original use of 'sticky end' was literal. The phrase became metaphorical (that is, as a reference to deaths that didn't involved anything sticky) in the pages of Victorian melodramas, where characters who met a "sticky end" often faced dramatic and gruesome deaths. It may be that was the point that the association with the phrase and bloody death became established.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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