Stick-in-the-Mud – Idiom, Origin & Meaning

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

When a writer uses an idiom, chances are they want to provide their audience with something to relate their message to through the use of an analogy or allusion. An idiom offers a figurative use of what would otherwise be a confusing literal definition.

For example, if you call somebody a stick-in-the-mud, you aren’t calling them a piece of dirty wood. But if your audience is unfamiliar with the term or is a non-native English speaker, they may become very confused.

Let’s learn about what a stick-in-the-mud is, where it originated, and how to use it in speech and writing.

What Is the Meaning of Stick-in-the-Mud?

Stick in the Mud Idiom Origin Meaning

Stick-in-the-mud is an idiomatic phrase that serves as a noun to describe a person set in their ways or someone who lacks a sense of adventure and does not appreciate change. Basically, it describes them as choosing to be stationary in their lot in life and not motivated to improve or change.

It is used as a mild insult and is often used as an admonishment, such as “Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud.”

For example:

  • I know you meant well when you introduced me to your friend last night, but I know him from college, and he wasn’t very nice back then. I didn’t want to look like a real stick-in-the-mud and be rude, and I would appreciate it if you never invite him out with us again.
  • Old Mr. Miller at the end of the block is a real stick-in-the-mud and will yell at any kid who even touches his lawn when they ride by on their bikes.
  • I struggled to show my objection without seeming to be a stick-in-the-mud, but the fact remained that the new office dress code was old-fashioned and outdated, especially concerning women.

Stick-in-the-Mud Origins

Stick in the Mud Ngram
Stick in the mud usage trend.

The phrase stick-in-the-mud was preceded by other variations pertaining to being stuck in other types of difficult situations, such as clay, mud and briers. The first example of this was documented in 1565 in Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus:

“They beyng accused of extortion and pillage were in muche trouble, or stacke in the bryars.”

The General Evening Post, a London newspaper, often made use of the term to name undesirable traits of a specific type of person—namely, one who wasn’t very ethical. Examples of this are seen in these two articles dated from November and December of 1733:

“George Fluster, alias Stick in the Mud, has made himself an Evidence, and impeached the above two Persons.” [November 15-17]

“John Anderson, Francis Ogleby, and James Baker, alias Stick in the Mud, for breaking open the House of Mr. Thomas Bayner, a Silversmith, and stealing thence Plate to a great value.” [December 8]

Of all the variations, only stick-in-the-mud remains in use today.

Let’s Review

The idiomatic phrase stick-in-the-mud is an old term first described using other variations as far back as the 16th century. Although only the stick-in-the-mud version remains, it is still true to its original definition, which describes a person who is stuck in their ways, often not in a good way, and is unlikely never to change. In the past, it was usually used to highlight the negative and sometimes unlawful transgressions of people unwilling to learn from their mistakes.

Today, the term is less used with the criminal type but still is used to infer an insult nonetheless.