To be in a cleft stick
Rather like to be between a rock and a hard place, to be in a cleft stick is indicative of the fact that you are in a tight spot where either of the two options in front of you will have adverse consequences.
Before we get into the derivation of the phrase, the word cleft is worthy of some examination. In the days when axes were swung around with considerably more gay abandon than they are today, the verb cleave was used to describe the splitting of an object, often an opponent’s head, into two pieces, the blade of the axe making a V-shaped incision into it.
Those of us who love to parse verbs will know that cleft is the past participle of cleave and so, a cleft stick is one which has been cleaved into a V-shape. Such are the vagaries of the English language, though, that cleave has another form of past participle. This one is cloven, used, for example, to describe animals with hooves split into two.
A cleft stick, ergo, is one which has been split down the middle to a particular point so that the two sections can be prised apart slightly, a jolly useful arrangement for transporting a candle as Jonathan Swift noted in his playfully satirical Directions to Servants from around 1745; “you may conveniently stick your candle in a bottle, or with a lump of butter against the wainscot, in a powder-horn, or in an old shoe, or in a cleft stick.”
A century later, candles were still being carried in cleft sticks, as Charles Dickens testifies in Oliver Twist (1838), when describing Mr John Dawkins aka the Artful Dodger: “he bore in his right hand a tallow candle stuck in the end of a cleft stick.” Presumably a narrower incision enabled a Government Runner encountered by the American author, Stewart Edward White, in East Equatorial Africa to carry a letter, “stuck in a cleft stick”, as described in his 1913 travelogue, The Land of Footprints.
The point of using a cleft stick, severed along the grain, to transport something is that the grip was vice-like and the object wouldn’t fall or slip. It is not surprising, therefore, that the phrase began to be used figuratively to describe being in a position where movement was difficult if not nigh impossible. Thus William Cowper wrote in a letter dated 1782 in what is probably the first instance of its figurative use in printed form; “we are squeezed to death, between the two sides of that sort of alternative which is commonly called a cleft stick.” Cowper’s use of commonly suggests that it was already in regular use in speech.
It is clear from the Records of the Town of East-Hampton from 1639 to 1680 that cleft sticks were used as a form of punishment to curb the tongues of unruly women. An entry for 2nd February 1652 noted that “it is ordered that Goody Edwards shal pay 3 Lb or have her tongue in a cleft sticke for the Contempt of a warent.” Another early use of a cleft stick was to catch a rattlesnake with. The doubtless intrepid Captain Silas Taylor noted in A Way to Kill Rattlesnakes, contained in the Review of the Works of the Royal Society of London of 1751, “procure a cleft Stick, and put into the Notch of it, a Quantity of the bruised Leaves of wild Pennyroyal..”, advise we would all do well to heed.
These two passages have led some to argue that one or other were the antecedents of the figurative usage of our phrase. But I do not see that this is necessarily the case. From their context they are prosaic descriptions of the use of a cleft stick to ensure that the object it is holding doesn’t move. The figurative sense is clear in Cowper’s use and it is an obvious development from an everyday object which was put to use in a variety of ways.