“In the sticks” and back to Chinuk Wawa

totem stick

Illustration from a “totem stick” article

My friend muskwatch posted a question on this blog: Does anyone know if the phrase “in the sticks” comes from Chinook Jargon?

I’ve always inferred that this phrase is a little-known CJ contribution into American English.  That impression is reinforced for me by the existence in my dialect of the synonym “in the tules” [‘tuliz].

However, apparently some Australians think it’s a reference to the Styx Valley in Tasmania!

A great website called phrases.org mentions an earliest known citation that I at first took to be from Oregon–implicitly supporting a Jargon origin:

‘In the sticks’ is just a reference to an area where there are lots of twigs, that is, the countryside. It was first an American expression but is now used throughout the English-speaking world. The earliest citation of it that I have found is from the US newspaper the Florence Times Daily, November 1897:

… he gathered from 1 1/2 acres this year 21 barrels of corn. If any man “away in the sticks” can beat this, in the language of “Philander Doesticks,” we exclaim, “let him stand forward to de rear.”

But this is not from Florence, Oregon.  It’s from South Carolina!

And Q[ueer]K[ritter] Philander Doesticks [, Perfect Brick] was the pen name of Mortimer Thomson, nationally a popular humorist for a short time — not from or of the Northwest.

So I’m now skeptical whether “in the sticks” is due to Chinook Jargon influence.

The earliest “in the sticks” in Google Books seems to be from the awful late date of 1956…albeit in a reminiscent tone.

Similar discouraging results convince me we can’t claim “in the sticks” is inspired by Chinuk Wawa at all.


Post script: Maybe an actual Chinuk Wawa “stick” connection has turned up.

In the course of researching this post, I found a 1922 totem stick from an article about Southeast Alaska Indians. That phrase sounds like what Jargon would say for ‘totem pole’; I’ve heard a version of it as tʰúmtʰum-pʰúl in CW audio from a Vancouver Island Indian who was alive in the 1920s.

While older sources favor “totem post” and “totem pole”, occurrences can be found of “totem stick” in published English back to the 1880s. That’s an era when Chinook Jargon was still in full force in the northern coastal areas that the latter phrase referred to. CJ words like “potlatch” occur in the same articles and books…

So I’m hypothesizing that “totem stick” was a phrase people actually used for ‘totem pole’ in Chinuk Wawa.

What do you think?