The old ‘carrot and stick’ saying

Published 6:25 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2018

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Isle of Wight resident and longtime Smithfield Times reader Joe Ferguson posed a question some months ago that I have been slow to deal with.

He asked whether the current use of the phrase “carrot and stick” as an approach to employee supervision, governmental oversight and other interactions is correct, isn’t an adulteration of an earlier phrase, “carrot on a stick?”

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It turns out that Joe is not the first person to raise that question. Linguists have wrestled with it for years and, as is so often the case with language, there’s not a lot of agreement as to “correctness.”

This much is certain. The two phrases have quite different meanings and, as Joe suspects, the “carrot on a stick” probably predates “carrot and stick.” He’s also correct that the distinction is important.

The “carrot on a stick” phrase, which may well be the original context, seems to have come from quite probably apocryphal tales of donkeys pulling carts or engaged in races. The driver would tie a carrot to a stick and dangle the vegetable in front of the donkey. As it swayed in front of the animal, he would walk toward it. The donkey would be thus cajoled into going wherever the driver chose, but would never reach the carrot. Thus, using a “carrot on a stick” is to tempt someone with what is very probably an unattainable treat or treasure.

Using a “carrot and stick” approach is quite different. The carrot is offered to the subject — be it donkey or human — and if said subject complies, he actually does receive the treat being offered. On the other hand, if the beast of burden — four legged or taxpayer variety — does not comply, he is thrashed with a stick, regulation or something.

The “carrot and stick” approach has become the most commonly used variation and can be found all the way from the mom and pop business to the United Nations. In fact, it is probably most frequently heard in the realm of international diplomacy.

Do not think for a minute that this lowly “Short Rows” column is the first place this subject has been dissected. Hardly. The Boston Globe’s renowned wordsmith Jan Freeman, who writes a regular blog titled, naturally, “The Word,” expounded on the subject at some length a while back. She found, after researching the work of still other linguistic experts, that the original phrase turned up sometime in the 19th century. It was most famously used by Winston Churchill, who in chastising Adolph Hitler’s growing power, wrote in 1939:

“Thus, by every device from the stick to the carrot, the emaciated Austrian donkey is made to pull the Nazi barrow up an ever-steepening hill.”

Ah, Winston could turn a phrase.

One conclusion must be drawn before we end this discussion. Neither of the phrases is “correct.” They simply have two very different meanings. One — carrot and stick — clearly grew out of the other. It’s not an adulteration, but rather an adaptation that has found much broader appeal and application in today’s world. That’s how language evolves.

So there you have it, Joe. Thanks for asking. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.