Last month I wrote a blog on strange things my parents used to say. Somehow I missed one of my favourite expressions, and one that I still use today whenever I have an excuse: “more x than you can shake a stick at”.
What a brilliant expression! It means a very large number of whatever x is; more than you can count.
My parents would use it, for example, as Christmas approached to say “what do you want more toys for? You already have more toys than you can shake a stick at”.
Or, in my more recent usage, on a Saturday morning I may blearily declare “my head hurts, I had more beers last night than you could shake a stick at”.
You get the drift.
It is a very strange expression as I am not aware that shaking sticks at things is a particularly common practice.
A Google search reveals a general consensus on the origins of the expression: it seems it originates in America and is first recorded in the Lancaster Journal of Pennsylvania dated 5 August 1818, which declared ‘We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at’.
This suggests two things to me: 1) the expression seems to appear fully formed and without explanation, so it may have already been in common usage; and 2) Lancaster of 1818 sounds like my kind of place.
There also seems to be general consensus that no-one has any particularly compelling explanation of its etymology. Oh yes, there are theories and speculations (see the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange for example), but like all of the best weird expressions the origins have been lost in the mists of time.
Anyway, my memory of this expression was jogged by this excellent cartoon on my “The Argyle Sweater” calendar earlier this week. Enjoy.