Shake a Stick At – Meaning, Origin & Examples

You may have come across the phrase “shake a stick at” in a number of different contexts. This can lead to some confusion!

But worry not! We’re about to unpack all of this phrase’s potential uses, so read on to learn more.

Shake a Stick at – Meaning

The meaning of “shake a stick at” depends on the context in which this phrase is used. “More (X) than you can shake a stick at” means there is an abundance of (X), while “(Y) is nothing to shake a stick at” means that (Y) is not worth engaging with.

Shake a Stick At Meaning

Many sources have suggested that “shake a stick at” is intended to create the image of a person holding a walking stick or cane, perhaps in their capacity as a shepherd.

One example of how this phrase is used is when one asserts that there is “more than you could shake a stick at” or “more than I can shake a stick at”:

  • There are more tourists in Hawaii than you could shake a stick at.
  • There are more weeds in this garden than I can shake a stick at.

In this context “shake a stick at” creates the image of someone using a cane or walking stick to point and count the number of something. Therefore, if there are more tourists than you can shake a stick at, it means there are too many tourists to count.

Another example of usage is the phrase “nothing to shake a stick at”.

  • An angry teenager is nothing to shake a stick at.
  • He’s all bark and no bite – nothing to shake a stick at.

In this context, “shake a stick at” creates the image of someone threatening to use their cane or walking stick as a weapon, like how a shepherd might wave his cane to scare off wolves and protect his flock.

As such, if something is “nothing to shake a stick at”, it means it is not a true threat and there’s no point waving your metaphorical cane at it.

Shake a Stick at – Origin

The origin of the phrase “shake a stick at” is the subject of much debate and speculation, so we may never know with certainty where it comes from.

However, it is generally accepted as an 1800s North Americanism that was later adopted in the UK.

It was David Crockett who said one of the earliest quotations using this phrase in the 1835 text Tour to the North and Down East:

  • This was a temperance house, and there was nothing to treat a friend to that was worth shaking a stick at.

There are also many examples of canes or walking sticks being used to fight off people or dogs in texts published in London in the 1800s:

  • If he shook his stick at the Hall Green, (the place of his residence,) the boys trembled as far as the town land end. (The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature (London), 1823)

Shake a Stick at – Similar Quotes

There are two potential uses for the phrase “shake a stick at”.

The first is “more (X) than one can shake a stick at”, which means there is an abundance of something. Here are a few quotes which express similar sentiments:

  • We’re swimming in (X)
  • We’re up to our ears in (X)
  • Enough (X) to choke a horse

Another use of the phrase is “nothing to shake a stick at”, which means that something is not a threat:

  • It’s not worth the fight
  • There’s no point raising your hackles over it

Phrases That Mean the Opposite of “Shake a Stick at”

Since the phrase “more (X) than one can shake a stick at” means there is an abundance of something, an opposite phrase would suggest there’s a scarcity of something.

  • As scarce as hen’s teeth
  • Few and far between

Since “nothing to shake a stick at” means that something is not a threat, an opposite phrase would suggest that something is, in fact, quite threatening:

  • Sword of Damocles
  • Playing with fire

In What Situations Can You Use “Shake a Stick at”?

You can use “shake a stick at” in two ways:

Firstly, you can say there is an abundance of something by saying “There is more (X) than you can shake a stick at”. So, if there are too many of something to count, you can use this phrase.

Secondly, you can imply that something is not a threat by saying it is “nothing to shake a stick at”. So, if you don’t think there’s any point in getting up in arms about something, you can use this phrase.