Thursday, December 22, 2016

The wrong end of the stick


One of my favorite activities while traveling is to take a walking tour of the city I am visiting. The tour usually consists of a small group led by a tour guide, who invariably is a student of art or history studying abroad, or an expat humanities graduate who is living abroad and is augmenting their income by giving tours. The tours are always enjoyable, combining stories about the city and its history, architecture, and cultural spots with frequent stops to coffee and dessert shops. Sometimes you get a special tour guide, who in addition to being a history buff, is also a linguistics enthusiast. When that happens, you hear special stories about the historical origin of phrases: something I am very interested in.
In Rome, I had such a tour guide, and the story stuck with me, although I could not verify its accuracy. I could find one website that has a similar reference to the story. It was hilarious and I remembered it to this day. It is the story of the origin of the phrase “the wrong end of the stick.” The tour guide explained that in the old Roman empire, before the advent of toilet paper and private sanitation, people used to go to public toilets to relieve themselves. When they were done, they would wipe themselves using a stick with a sponge at the end, and pass the sticks around after cleaning up. You can imagine how you’d feel if you grabbed the stick by the wrong end.

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