You can't beat it with a stick

A reader has written in to take issue with the use in the Monitor's columns of that venerable cliché of journalism, "the carrot and the stick."

It's generally taken to mean "rewards and punishments," and is often used to describe the approach (cf. that other venerable cliché, "two-pronged approach") one nation takes to trying to modify the behavior of another. At the moment Iran has been getting such treatment from the United States and Europe, which are concerned about Tehran's nuclear ambitions. As they say, one nuclear bomb can spoil your whole day.

Against this background, Gentle Reader writes: "In this metaphor the stick is NEVER intended to be a symbol of castigation. The 'stick' is part of the tool which involves using a stick and a length of string to which a carrot is tied. This whole apparatus (stick, string, carrot) is used to hold the carrot just out of reach of a domesticated animal (donkey, mule, horse, etc.) in order to entice it to move forward.

"Of course, since as the animal steps forward the 'prize' moves forward in relation to its movements, the carrot is always just out of reach."

No wonder the Iranians are ticked.

Our reader continues: "[Your writer] makes the same mistake that thousands of other people who grew up in the US make.

"He confuses the 'carrot and stick' metaphor with the comment attributed to Teddy Roosevelt: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick.' "

If our reader is right that this venerable cliché is widely misunderstood, the problem is not confined to the United States. In publications outside the US, "carrot and stick" treatment is being applied not only in Iran but in India and the Balkans, as well, to cite but a few examples. TR would seem to cast a very long shadow indeed.

I think that what's happening here is that a familiar expression has completely slipped whatever moorings in reality it ever had and has taken on a new life. After all, when was the last time you saw an actual live donkey?

The Word Detective, aka Evan Morris, supports our reader's view of "carrot and stick" working together as one. But curiously, he cites the Oxford English Dictionary, which, it seems to me, fuses the two interpretations of the phrase.

He writes, "The Oxford English Dictionary seems to endorse the 'reward and threat' interpretation, explaining the phrase as being 'with allusion to the proverbial method of tempting a donkey to move by dangling a carrot before it ... an enticement, a promised or expected reward; frequently contrasted with 'stick' (= punishment) as the alternative.' Yet the earliest (1916) citation for the phrase listed by the OED seems to refer to a carrot dangling from a stick attached to and moving forward with the donkey itself."

However charming the idea of the dangling carrot, the "punishment vs. reward" interpretation is the one that seems to be meeting a need in public discourse just now.

"Carrot and stick" is in that final phase of cliché-hood, when it still makes some pretense of being a clever expression, before it congeals completely into a set phrase or idiom.

And as Miss Manners will tell you, there are reasons for some of the set phrases in our lives. There are times when we don't need to be clever or original - we just need to be present and sincere.


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