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Cleft stick

Q From Michael Shannon: While reading a news article online I came across the term cleft stick. An Internet search turned up several definitions, all of them a variation on “being stuck in a difficult position”. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t find anything that gave a history of it. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it, and it’s such an intriguing term that I’d love to know where it came from, hence I turn to you for help. Any clues?

A It’s mainly a British expression. It’s often rather stronger than just being in a difficult situation — it’s one in which you’re in a dilemma, a serious fix or bind in which you have no room for manoeuvre so that any action you take will be unfavourable to you.

Cleft is now unusual outside a small number of fixed phrases, of which the best known is cleft palate. It’s one of the two past participles of the verb cleave, to split or sever, the other being cloven, as in animals with cloven hooves.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first example is dated 1782, in a letter from William Cowper: “We are squeezed to death, between the two sides of that sort of alternative which is commonly called a cleft stick.”

The image is of a stick which has been partially severed along the grain of the wood to make a springy clasp for some object. A thing held in this way is in an unyielding embrace, unable to move, from which the figurative expression derives.

Things once held in a literal cleft stick included a candle (this appears in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens: “He bore in his right hand a tallow candle stuck in the end of a cleft stick”) and an arrowhead attached to a cleft shaft, but the one that at once comes to mind for me is a letter. A typical example is in a famous work of travel writing, still in print, The Land of Footprints by the American author Stewart Edward White, a memoir he published in 1913 that recounted the year he spent in East Equatorial Africa early in the century:

About the middle of the morning we met a Government runner, a proud youth, young, lithe, with many ornaments and bangles; his red skin glistening; the long blade of his spear, bound around with a red strip to signify his office, slanting across his shoulder; his buffalo hide shield slung from it over his back; the letter he was bearing stuck in a cleft stick and carried proudly before him as a priest carries a cross to the heathen in the pictures.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Aug. 2008

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 16 August 2008.