knowyourphrase.com - The Meanings and Origins For Several Common Idioms and Phrases
Getting the bad end of a deal, or receiving the least desirable outcome from something.
This saying has existed since at least the 1500s, but it was said a bit differently back then. During those times, this expression was actually said as 'the worst end of the staff.' Despite having different wording than the modern form of the phrase, it still carried the similar meaning of 'getting the bad side of a deal.' This older version appeared in Nicolas Udall's translation of Apophthegmes, that is to saie, prompte, quicke, wittie and sentencious saiynges, 1542, where it reads:
"Which as often as thei see theim selfes to haue the worse ende of the staffe in their cause."
The transition from a staff to a stick happened by the mid-16th century according to the writings of John Heywood, who lived during those times and was a writer and collector of proverbs. He wrote a book called The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood in 1562, and inside he explains:
"Staff, 'the worse end of the staff', we now say 'wrong end of the stick.'"
So there were right and wrong ends of a stick, then there came to be short and long ends of a stick. The earliest recording I could find of the expression with the word "short" in it, comes from the end of the 1800s. This example is from the Bar Harbor Record newspaper, 1895:
"There was a horse and hog trade consummated in Bar Harbor last week between two well known
men which has been the topic of disucssion ever since, and it is a question as to who got the short
end of the stick."
It's unclear as to why a person getting the "wrong" or "short" end of a stick got to be associated with a person being at a disadvantaged position.
* Tom got the short end of the stick when he got stuck eating plain carrots while everyone else had a small cup of ranch dipping sauce at their disposal.
Note: The origins for most idioms are unclear. Often times, the origins you see listed are plausible theories to how an idiom came to be, but not necessarily so. The quotes you see that contain the phrase are the oldest that I could find, but it's very possible there are older recordings somewhere, so if you know of any, let me know!
Keep in mind, just because you see a saying in a newspaper from 1850 does not mean it originated in that year, or from that newspaper. In all likelihood, if a saying is already being used in a form of media like that, it's probably from an earlier time. The purpose of these old quotes is to show, with proof, how old some phrases go back in history.