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Sticky wicket

Q From Bill Gage: What is the history of sticky wicket? I have been told that, before the invention of toilet paper, there were sticks placed in a rack in public toilets for use by folks when they completed their business. The sticks were then replaced in the racks. At night some of the younger crowd would switch ends of the sticks in the rack, thus when the next person reached for a stick he would get hold of a sticky wicket.

A That’s a wonderfully inventive story, with just enough truth about it to stop one for a moment. It’s true that, before toilet paper, people did at times use sponges on sticks (the Romans did, for example), but they were never called wickets. The real explanation is either more mundane or more esoteric, depending on whether you live in a country that plays the ancient game of cricket or not.

A wicket was originally (and can still be) a small door or grille, especially one cut into a larger door. It was borrowed in the early eighteenth century to refer to the three wooden sticks called stumps that form the structure at which the bowler aims and which the batsman must defend. In the usual double-ended game there are two sets, 22 yards apart. By a further extension, the word came to apply to the ground between them (we’re now some way from a small door, but the sequence is plain). After rain, the ground becomes soft and the ball bounces more erratically, making it more difficult for the batsman. Hence a sticky wicket, in full to bat on a sticky wicket. To be on one, figuratively speaking, is to experience great difficulty.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Sep. 2000

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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: 23 September 2000.