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Evolution of Old Man Sayings

Tuesday, March 22 2005

When my brothers and I were a lot younger, we would often sit down and try to make up the best “Old Man Saying” we could come up with, speaking it as an old man with thyroid problems or years of grumbling might. An Old Man Saying is something like “There’s more sheep there than you can shake a stick at” or “Better than a stick in the eye” or “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole”. If you’ve noticed, there’s a theme emerging here. Sticks.

I have a theory about Old Man Sayings and sticks. Before technology turned everyone’s world upside down, the best thing going for you in life was a stick. You could scratch strategic plans in the dirt, kill rabbits, poke at things without bending over, and use it to scratch your back. To help flesh out this theory, here are several selected Old Man Sayings whose entomology must derive directly from what was then the killer app, the stick.

1. “More [objects] than you can shake a stick at.”
While the practical nature of a stick is completely obvious, what we don’t know in this modern age is that wielding a stick can get tiring. If you have three hundred cats and you want to count them, you’d aim your stick at them and count them off. The part about “shaking a stick” comes from the fact that if you were counting three hundreds cats, your stick would be shaking from all the rapid counting. But doing so is tiring, so you’d just give up, and concede that there were more than you could count. Experience would teach you that you could never count three hundred cats, so as you stumbled upon them in your kilt, you’d be overwhelmed and say “Yeah, you know what, there are more cats there than I can shake a stick at.”

2. “Better than a stick in the eye.”
In the old days as people were beginning to build up cities and live in them, loads of bricks would fall on passers by, killing them or breaking their bones. Those responsible for dropping the loads would call out to the victim “Hey man, that’s certainly better than a stick in the eye!” and the victim would agree, even if his bones were broken. This is because of the age old tradition of jabbing sticks in the eyes of your enemies as a form of humiliation. It would be better to be crippled and broken up by accident in those days than it would be to have your pride undermined by getting a stick in the eye.

3. “I wouldn’t touch that with a [length] pole”
Shortly after the adoption of the stick, a common misconception arose. Orange farmers would take a stick and poke at their crop, testing for ripeness. Some oranges would fall off, some would stay firmly. But some, in their putrid and rotten state, would leak foul rotten orange juice down the stick which would dribble on the stick holders hands and cravats. This would attract insects and wild predators. The assumption came pretty quickly that anything vile or putrid shouldn’t be touched with a stick due to it’s possible transfer capabilities.

I encourage you to find a stick in your yard and relive the Stick Era. These sayings I’ve talked about will certainly take on a whole new meaning. I encourage you to comment and add more stick related sayings so we can decipher their true meaning.