Weighing in on Wedges

Posted by Word Camel on March 15, 2002

In Reply to: Unsure About Wedges posted by TheUnlurker on March 15, 2002

: : : : : : Where does the phrase:

: : : : : : "THE WRONG END OF THE STICK" emanate from????

: : : : : Probably from another phrase, "the short end of the stick," which historically had something to do with being shafted, as it were. Also see link below.

: : : : ... and the thin end of the wedge? What's that all about?

: : : It's a simple metaphor.

: : : Wood and stone were (are) split by driving wedges into small fissures; once the "thin end" had been driven in all the hard work had been done. Tapping the "fat end" forced the medium apart further and further until it eventually split.

: : : As for "the wrong end of the stick"...
: : : If you've used a stick as a walking aid then the muddy end is the wrong end,
: : : or,
: : : If you've used a stick to poke around in a fire then the hot end is the wrong end,
: : : or,
: : : If you've used a stick to stir some medium (paint, say) then the gunged end is the wrong end,
: : : etc.

: : : I am reminded:
: : : What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back?
: : : A stick.
: : : What's brown and sticky?
: : : A stick

: : Hmmmm. Given that I can't find any source references for the expression "the thin end of the wedge", I've been musing. It's actually quite hard to define a neat meaning for the phrase - the closest I can come up with is that someone who "gets the thin end of the wedge" is someone who is given the worst or most difficult or unpleasant part of something - whether it be a thing or a task. Also to pass comment such as "that really is the thin end of the wedge" means, I think, that the thing referred to borders on intolerable.

: : Unlurker's proposed origin is plausible, I suppose - if one is to identify with a wedge used in masonry or carpentry, then the most unpleasant place to be on that wedge would indeed be at "the thin end". It's the part hammered into the stone or wood. However, I wonder if the phrase's provenance could instead be equally as simple - maybe from the division of food. If something round is sliced and shared, then a person getting the "thin end of a wedge" has been hard done by, because he's probably getting less than the guy got the fat part.

: : Alternatively, there may be a military explanation. Long ago, wedges were used as troop formations to attempt to drive apart enemy lines. Being at "the thin end of the wedge" was undoubtedly not where the smart soldier would choose to be, since it would mean almost certain death as he'd be among the men first to encounter the enemy.

: : Any other opinions or a clear reference gratefully appreciated.

: That's a whole other usage (someone getting hard done by gets the "thin end of the wedge") that I hadn't thought of.

: The metaphor as I understand it means the action(s) or event(s) that is(are) inevitably going to lead to some catastrophic outcome, as in "the declassification of cannabis is the thin end of the wedge, soon our school children will be doing crack cocaine beheind the bikesheds" (an example of argument as practised by the hard of thinking).

: The usage you cite seems like malapropism (though the analogy of the wedge of troops was picturesque).

: Maybe it comes from "the thin end of the wedgie" (which is of course the painful end).

The most important point about the thin end of the wedge is that once it has penetrated something, a line of defence, a piece of wood or stone, etc. it only a matter of time and the application of force before the whole of the wedge will split the thing apart. It's often easier to do things with a relatively small amount of force and a wedge than with a great deal of force evenly applied. I used this principle many times in sculpting and in chopping firewood. I think the military use comes from this.

Here is an example of it's use in the military sense: "In July, the enemy sought to wrest more ground from the UNC by driving a wedge eight miles deep into EUSA's central sector. Taylor quickly contained the enemy and counterattacked, but with an armistice agreement imminent, EUSA halted its attack on July 20 short of the original line. "
From An Overview of the Korean War 1950 - 1953, (korea50.army.mil/history/factsheets/army.html)

In most references I found, it seems to be used as a figure of speech to describe some relatively small change that will lead to a major transformation - usually negative. Take this sentence from a CNN article from January 31st entitiled "U.S. plane hit during Philippine exercises" : "However, critics say they fear the U.S. troops are merely the thin end of the wedge leading to a permanent American military presence in the country."

"Getting the thin edge of the wedge" or "being at the thin end of the wedge" seems to be an extrapolation from this original meaning, maybe in the way that " The sharp end of the stick" or the "brown end of the stick" may follow on from "the wrong end of the stick".