Upper and Lower Case
The printing industry has left us a rich heritage of peculiar phrases which are still in use even though the original printing technology is no longer used. For the Linguistic History Trivia Bit this time I’m going to pick out just two of these phrases.
The first of these are the words, uppercase and lowercase. We refer to capital letters as uppercase and the rest of the letters as lowercase. In this case, it’s all about drawers or cases as they’re known in printing.
So this is one that means exactly what it says.
Wrong End of the Stick
This next one I think is also a printing term but searches on the Internet would suggest something else mainly because it seems to have been confused with a similar phrase with a different meaning.This phrase is the shit end of the stick and it’s quite a fun one. That phrase is possibly Roman in origin and to picture the scene you really need to have seen one of these ancient Rome documentary programs about life in a Roman fort. For those who haven’t I shall try draw a word picture. Imagine you wish to visit the toilet. Well the Romans were pretty civilised and would sit on something much as many of us do now and the waste they produced would fall into a channel. If possible they would arrange it so this channel had running water in it which would carry everything away. One of the main differences to our modern day conveniences is that everyone sat together while they did this. You would be all lined up on this wall structure sitting and chatting while you did what you had to do. These soldiers would wipe their bums with a stick that had a bit of sponge on the end and if you handed the stick to someone else to use then there was the possibility that you could hand them the more unpleasant end of the stick by mistake perhaps.
Now this seems a bit unlikely, certainly in Roman army circles as there seems to be a certain amount of evidence that every soldier carried his own stick and therefore there would be no need to share.
It’s also not the phrase I’m looking for as the one I intend to talk about is the one that means someone seems to have heard what you’ve said but they’ve completely misinterpreted it.
This is also known as getting hold of the wrong end of the stick.
And I found a couple for this one.
One seems to have grown out of the phrase, the worse end of the staff. If you’ve got a walking stick with the pointy bit at one end and the bit you lean on at the other then it will only be useful one way around.
However – the one which fits the phrase best is the printing term. Remember, we were talking about the typesetter picking out the letters from his cases to make up the words.
Well he would stack them up together in a rack. This rack was known as a composing stick and the letters must be loaded on to this stick the wrong way around so that when you drop the stick and all its letters face down onto the galley the letters will then be the right way around. A beginner or someone not paying attention could easily get ahold of the wrong end of the stick and the resulting text would be quite meaningless.
So there you go – upper and lower case and getting hold of the wrong end of the stick.