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Carrot unstuck

A new twist in an old debate

By Jan Freeman
March 8, 2009
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WHICH CAME FIRST, the donkey or the diplomat?

Remember the carrot-and-stick conundrum? Of course you do; it's one of the more vexing language standoffs of our time. Some people say the proper phrase is "carrot on a stick," meaning an incentive, a carrot dangled in front of a balky donkey. Others are sure it's "carrot and stick," suggesting behavior modification by a combination of bribery and threat. Each faction accuses the other of spreading a corrupted version of the true idiom.

But the documentary evidence has been sparse. Michael Quinion revisited carrots and sticks last month in his online newsletter, World Wide Words, and added some new evidence to the pile: He found the phrase "carrot-persuaded donkey" in 1851, and an 1872 politician having "carrots dangled before his nose" - neither, however, with a stick attached.

The earliest carrot he found explicitly on a stick came from 1890, in a traveler's narrative of a journey through Russia. "As I rode along, there flashed into my mind a cartoon I had once seen of a donkey race, in which the victory had been won by an ingenious jockey who held a carrot on the end of a stick a foot or two in front of his ass's nose."

The "carrot and stick" sense dates to an 1876 review of a book on John Stuart Mill, referring to the "carrot and stick discipline" to which his father subjected him. Winston Churchill also used it, in 1938: "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."

This sense, having proved so useful as political shorthand, is now dominant in English usage and popular around the globe; Quinion's readers sent him versions of the phrase in French ("de la carotte et du baton"), German ("mit Zuckerbrot und Peitsche," or sweet bread and whip), Italian ("del bastone e della carota"), and several other languages.

That left "carrot and stick" ahead, both in date and in usage, which would have been fine with me - it's the version I grew up with. But Quinion's discoveries tempted me to dip another toe into the Google Books pool; there's something new every day, after all, and the search engine is quirky enough that you never know what it will dredge up.

Fighting quirky with quirky, I tried searching for equine treats that substitute for carrots, and I soon hit pay dirt: Turnips on a stick. Lydia Maria Child, a Boston author and abolitionist, had used that version in 1846, in a widely reprinted story intended to show that children respond better to kindness than to whipping.

"I manage children pretty much as the man did the donkey," Child's heroine tells her cranky neighbor, who scolds and beats the young servant girl they share. "Not an inch would the poor beast stir, for all his master's beating and thumping. But a neighbor tied some fresh turnips to a stick, and fastened them so that they swung directly before the donkey's nose, and" - well, you know the rest.

A similar image appears in Edward P. Montague's account of a US expedition to the Dead Sea, published in 1849. The travelers' balky horses remind Montague of, yes, of a cartoon showing a donkey race, a cartoon "illustrat[ing] the idea that persuasion is better than force." One rider is armed with a whip of "strong blackthorn twigs," which he applies to the animal; the other uses just the bunch of carrots tied to a stick, suspended in front of the donkey.

So here's our early evidence of carrots (or turnips) explicitly on the stick - support for the carrot-on-a-stick crowd, you'd think. But look again: The carrot ruse is not presented in the way we often take it today, as a manipulative trick. On the contrary, the carrot (whether bestowed or withheld) is meant to be the kind, enlightened alternative to the stick. Child's story was not suggesting that the little housemaid should be duped into working, merely treated humanely. The moral of both tales is that the carrot is more effective than the stick.

And in both stories, you'll notice, there's not just one single "stick," misinterpreted by (depending on your allegiance) the carrot-and-stickers or the carrot-on-a-stickers. There are two different sticks: the one suspending the carrot, and the one used (or not) to beat the animal or the servant. (That second stick was a common metonymy for "a beating" in the 19th century, as in this 1839 promise from "Tracts for the Times": "Their mother or I will give them the stick as sure as every Sunday comes round.")

Instead of a true version and a mistaken one, then, we seem to have two separate phrases, with different meanings and purposes, both embedded in the earliest mentions of carrots and sticks. So maybe we can call a truce in the carrot wars - at least until the next clues come to light.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas; visit the Word blog at boston.com/ideas/theword.

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