windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (133)?…

Stick in the mud

We use this phrase to denote someone who is dull and unadventurous and resistant to change. It is generally used in a pejorative fashion and is synonymous with an old fogey. The imagery it evokes is quite clear. Large swathes of mud can be tricky to wade through and if you are not careful you can come to a complete halt or, at best, your rate of progress is significantly slower than that of the person who has taken the drier route.

Interestingly, the first recorded instances of its use are as sobriquets for criminals in 18th century London. The General Evening Post in November 1732 reported that “George Fluster, alias Stick-in-the-Mud, has made himself an Evidence, and impeached the above two persons”.  In December 1733 the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer listed 14 malefactors who had received the sentence of death at the Old Bailey that month, including “John Baker, alias Stick in the Mud, for breaking into the house of Mr Thomas Rayner, a Silversmith, and stealing thence Plate to a Great Value”.

Being a snitch or breaking and entering, reprehensible as these characteristics may be in most quarters, are not qualities you would necessarily attribute to someone who has been left behind by the times. Rather, I think, what is being described here is their mental acuity. They were five cans short of a six pack or, to put it more kindly, a bit on the slow side mentally. Perhaps that’s why they got caught. William Walsh in his Handy Book of Curious Information, published in 1913, suggests this interpretation is along the right track. “A colloquial expression common to both England and America, and applied to a dullard or slow coach, a person who has never made any progress in education or business”.

The phrase escaped the preserve of criminality and the lower orders at the turn of the 19th century and began to be used in a figurative sense. In a review of Hilaris Benevolus’ The Pleasures of Human Life, printed in the Literary Panorama of 1807, we find a rather curiously constructed sub clause, “if we had not been stuck in the mud in his book, this Mr Benevolus had not helped us out”. The Monthly Mirror the next year contained a bit of doggerel, “Up rose Mr __, when Dallas sat down/ And stammer’d and stuck in the mud like a clown”. By 1832 the phrase had crossed the pond. In the New England Magazine, printed in Boston, we find, “lying mightily at ease, depend upon it, old stick-in-the-mud is wide awake; his eye is bent upon the waters, his mandibles are set for a quick nap”.  In all three instances, the sense is of someone who is slow on the uptake.

But at the same time as the American entry, we see a different shade of meaning emerge. In the Simpkin Papers, published in the Metropolitan in January 1832, the question was posed, “isn’t he a priest of the real old stick-in-the-mud religion, that was established in Ireland…?”  Here we have the sense of conservatism or old fogeyism. By the time the phrase appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford, published in 1861, it is this new sense that has taken over, “This rusty coloured one is that respectable old stick-in-the-mud, Nicias”.

So the phrase has migrated from a nickname for a London criminal to a description of someone slow on the uptake to a person resistant to change. As I see the world going to hell in a handcart, there is something appealing in being an old fogey, at least in some respects.

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