Sticky Carrots

carrots-and-sticksWell, people are using an idiom wrong again, and this time it is terribly widespread, I’m afraid.  I refer, of course to the “carrot and stick approach”.  Now, all right-thinking people, naturally, know that this refers to the act of tying a carrot to a stick and dangling it front of an animal (usually a donkey, since they are notably intractable and could use the extra motivation) to make it move forward.  That is to say, it refers to motivation through reward, or the promise of reward.

But some people are using the idiom to mean a combination of motivation through reward (the carrot) and punishment (the stick).  Now, you and I know this makes no sense.  How would you use the carrot without the stick to dangle it from?  The donkey will just snatch it out of your hand and eat it.  Apparently this second meaning is useful and applicable to various situations, but that’s no excuse – there is surely some other metaphor one could use.

The odd thing is, I did some research when composing this post (I don’t just dash these things off, you know), and while the top returns on a search of the phrase tend to refer to the second (wrong) meaning, the top image searches all show the proper image of some person or critter with a carrot dangling on a stick in front of them.  So I think folks know, deep down.

I did find an interesting discussion of the two possible meanings at the Boston Globe, here.  Now, I will admit, based on the admirably thorough research that Ms. Freeman performed, that the second (wrong) meaning does have a long pedigree, all the way back to 1876, and at first it almost seems older than the other (correct) meaning.  But Ms. Freeman did discover that references to other root vegetables dangling from sticks (turnips, say) date back even further, so we can conclude it is not only the more logical interpretation, but it has seniority.  Oddly, Ms. Freeman labors mightily to make the interpretation “fair” by saying that you could read these references from 1846 also mention sticks used for trashing so it could be interpreted either way, but lets face it, a “whip of strong blackthorn twigs” is not a stick, and if the whole point is that you throw it aside in favor of a carrot and stick, the case is scarcely made.  So let us hear no more of it.

~ by smwilliams on June 20, 2013.