‘in a cleft stick’: meaning and origin

The British-English phrase in a cleft stick means in a situation in which any action one takes will have adverse consequences.
—Synonym: Morton’s fork.

Here, cleft, past participle of the verb cleave, means split in two to a certain depth.

A cleft stick was used as a kind of holder—as humorously evoked by the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in the following passage from Directions to Servants (Dublin: printed by George Faulkner, 1745):

The Servants Candlesticks are generally broken, for nothing can last for ever. But, you may find out many Expedients: 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, or in the Barrel of a Pistol, or upon its own Grease on a Table, in a Coffee Cup or a Drinking Glass, a Horn Can, a Tea Pot, a twisted Napkin, a Mustard Pot, an Ink-horn, a Marrowbone, a piece of Dough, or you may cut a Hole in the Loaf, and stick it there.

The U.S. clergyman Edward James Young (1829-1906) evoked a different way of using a cleft stick in The Early Religious Customs of New England. An Address at the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Building of the Meeting-House in Hingham, Mass. August 8, 1881 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John Wilson and Son, 1882)—the following is about “the methods and means of punishment […], which were to be seen in every town in New England”:

The third [method] was a whipping-post, to which malefactors who had been convicted of forgery, lying, and speaking against the magistrates and churches, were bound and lashed. Persons guilty of profanity were obliged to stand for half an hour with their tongue in a cleft stick. For drunkenness a man was disfranchised, and compelled for a year to wear suspended from his neck a large letter D, made of red cloth and set upon white.

In the phrase in a cleft stick, therefore, the image is of one being squeezed between the stick’s prongs.

These are the earliest figurative uses of cleft stick, and the earliest occurrences of the phrase in a cleft stick, that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Medley (London, England) of Monday 23rd October 1710, edited by Arthur Mainwaring (1668-1712) and John Oldmixon (1673-1742):

For setting up a Junto to be always at Daggers drawing with the Ministers, till they led ’em in a Cleft Stick. You see nothing is more elegant and figurative: yet methinks the two Figures of drawing a Dagger and a Cleft Stick shou’d not be so near together; for tho the Expression is pretty, the Idea, unless taken in a jocose way, is somewhat terrifying.

2-: From The Examiner (London, England) for Friday 30th October to Monday 2nd November 1713, edited by the English author and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719):

He proceeded to greater Achievements: He put the Scotch Boot * upon a First Minister, for High Treason to the Party; and so pinch’d him upon the Uniting and Coming together of both Sides of the Cleft Stick, that before he would let him loose again, he made his Fear give up his Principles.

* This is a figurative use of Scotch boot, which denotes an instrument of torture formerly used in Scotland, consisting of a tight-fitting iron case in which a person’s leg is enclosed, iron wedges being then driven between the case and the leg.

3-: The English clergyman Conyers Middleton (1683-1750) used cleft-stick argument in Some farther Remarks, Paragraph by Paragraph, upon Proposals lately published for a new Edition of a Greek and Latin Testament, by Richard Bentley, containing a full Answer to the Editor’s late Defence of his said Proposals, as well as to all his Objections there made against my former Remarks (London, 1721)—as published in The Miscellaneous Works of the late Reverend and Learned Conyers Middleton, D.D., Principal Librarian of the University of Cambridge (London: Printed for R. Manby and H. S. Cox, 1755):

Our Editor concludes his Book with a very subtle Dilemma, or one of his cleft-stick Arguments, that catches a Man on both sides. If they will needs, says he, attack an Edition before it’s begun, let them put their Names to their Work; if they do not, they shall have no Answer; and if they do, they will need none.

4-: From Extract of a Letter from Utopia, dated March 14, 1444, published in Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) of Saturday 23rd March 1771:

The Printers of News-Papers are unfortunately at present in a cleft Stick; they have been forced to bow the Knee to Baal for printing the Utopian Debates, and their only Friends without Doors are angry that the Debates are not genuine.

5-: From The Carthaginian, translated by Richard Warner, published in Comedies of Plautus, translated into Familiar Blank Verse, by the Gentleman who translated The Captives (London: Printed for T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 1772):

Ago. Do you deny my money and my slave
Are at your house?
                                        Lyc. I do deny it, flat;
And would till I was hoarse, were there occasion—
Wit. You’re in a cleft stick, pandar—’Tis his bailiff
We told you was the Spartan , and who brought you
Three hundred Philippeans; and the money
Is in that purse.

6-: From Reports of Cases adjudged in the Court of King’s Bench, from Easter Term 12 Geo. 3. to Michaelmas 14 Geo. 3. (both inclusive) (Dublin: Printed by James Moore, 1790), by Capel Lofft:

Trinity Term, 14 Geo. 3. 1774. K. B.
Attachment for Non-payment of Costs in a criminal Suit.

On a motion for a rule to shew cause why the defendant should not be discharged out of custody upon the insolvent debtors act.
Mr. Justice Aston appeared to compassionate the young man’s case very much, and said he wished to be able to satisfy himself that it was in the power of the court to discharge him: And he thought it a case which ought to be interpreted in favour of the liberty of the subject.
Mr. Justice Willes—He has satisfied to the crown by his four months imprisonment: Supposing there was a general pardon he could not be discharged, for the crown has nothing in it, as it concerns the right between subject and subject. And he cannot, it is said, be discharged under the Lords Act, which is a cleft stick indeed.

7-: From the account of debates at the House of Commons, published in The Scots Magazine (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of June 1781:

Mr Gascoigne returned to his allusion to last year’s riots, and said, government was put into a cleft stick by opposition upon that occasion. If, when all authority was trod under foot, and all law and order subverted and destroyed, government exerted its powers, and put an end to disorder by the strong arm of the military, then the cry was, “they were tyrants, they acted oppressively!” and if they did not, what was the cry then?—that they were fools.

8-: From a letter, dated 9th December 1781, that the English poet William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote to Joseph Hill about the War of American Independence (1775-83)—as published in The Works of William Cowper (London: H. G. Bohn, 1853), edited by the English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843):

If we pursue the war, it is because we are desperate; it is plunging and sinking year after year into still greater depths of calamity. If we relinquish it, the remedy is equally desperate, and would prove I believe in the end no remedy at all. Either way we are undone. Perseverance will only enfeeble us more; we cannot recover the colonies by arms. If we discontinue the attempt, in that case we fling away voluntarily what in the other we strive ineffectually to regain; and whether we adopt the one measure or the other, are equally undone: for I consider the loss of America as the ruin of England. Were we less encumbered than we are at home, we could but ill afford it; but being crushed as we are under an enormous debt that the public credit can at no rate carry much longer, the consequence is sure. Thus it appears to me that we are squeezed to death, between the two sides of that sort of alternative which is commonly called a cleft stick, the most threatening and portentous condition in which the interests of any country can possibly be found.

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