What does it mean when someone says something is a ‘carrot on a stick’? Where did this idiom come from?
‘Carrot on a stick’ is a metaphor for a reward that is promised to someone to motivate them to perform a task. It is related to the phrases ‘carrot or stick’ and ‘carrot and stick,’ all of which refer to a historical method of motivating beasts of burden through reward or punishment.
The idiom ‘carrot on a stick’ refers to a reward that a person is promised as motivation to complete a specific task.
This is a variation of the phrases ‘carrot or stick’ and ‘carrot and stick,’ which refer to a person being offered a reward and a punishment at the same time as an incentive to get something specific done.
The etymology of the phrases ‘carrot on a stick,’ ‘carrot and stick,’ and ‘carrot or stick’ are truly fascinating. It seems like such a strange idiom at first, but once you understand the origin story it all starts to make a lot more sense.
The reference in this phrase has to do with two different ways that beasts of burden can be motivated. ‘Beasts of burden’ is a phrase that refers to animals that are used to carry loads, such as donkeys or mules.
Historically, there was a notion that one could motivate one of these animals either by dangling a carrot in front of them as a reward for continuing to walk forward or by punishing them with a stick.
The phrase ‘carrot and stick’ combines both of these motivations with the notion that the carrot is dangled out in front as a promised reward, and the stick is held behind as a threat that the animal will be beaten if it refuses the promised reward.
Some of the earliest references to this concept in the English language come from mid-19th-century authors that were referencing cartoons or caricatures of the time. These illustrations depicted donkey races, with one rider winning and one losing. The losing rider would typically be beating the animal with “blackthorn twigs,” while the winning rider would be relaxing on his saddle simply holding a stick with bait at the end.
In some oral traditions that communicated this same concept, a turnip was the vegetable on the end of the stick rather than a carrot.
There is a reference to using carrots to entice beasts of burden in the Coventry Standard from 1867 and a 1920 reference to the ‘carrot and stick’ method in The Yorkshire Post. This popped up in relation to an Agriculture Bill:
Mr. Acland (Lab., Camborne) said what was being dangled before the farmer were two carrots and a stick. The two carrots were guaranteed prices and further security of tenure, and the stick was Government control. This clause was necessary to promote security of tenure.
Winston Churchill also utilized this metaphor in a letter from the summer of 1938. In the letter, he wrote:
"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."
The first time that this idiom appeared in American periodicals that were widely available to the public was in 1948. In both an issue of The Economist and an article in the Daily Republic, the phrase was used.
Interestingly, there is a related idiom in the German language as well as Ukrainian and Russian. The translation into English leaves us with the idiom ‘sugar bread and whip.’
You might be surprised to learn that there is actually a motivational method in the world of business referred to as ‘carrot and stick’ motivation. This is a method used to modify the behavior of employees by engaging them in actions that will earn them rewards and guide them away from other actions by having a stated punishment.
In the workplace, the ‘carrot’ half of the bargain could consist of things like giving paid time off, going out for a group activity, or giving out bonuses, while the ‘stick’ portion might be losing part of a commission or working an unfavorable shift.
How would you use the phrase ‘carrot on a stick’ in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples:
Learning English idioms is a great way to add some flavor to your vocabulary. If you’re ready to keep learning and you don’t need a ‘carrot on a stick’ to motivate yourself, check out the rest of our idioms blog!