Friday, March 11, 2016

Sticks and Canes May Break My Bones - a Battered History and Etymology of "Raising Cain" and "Shake a Stick"

More [Blank] than you can “shake a stick at” – is an American idiom that refers to:

A large quantity, more than one can count . . . . This idiom presumably refers to brandishing a stick as a weapon, but the precise allusion is unclear., citing, Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Curiously, perhaps, this idiom may not be the only American idiom that harkens back to gentlemen (and others) brandishing sticks, or canes, as weapons.  The idiom, “to raise Cain,” meaning “to become angry or violent” or “to behave in a boisterous manner; cause a disturbance,” may be derived from a punning reference to raising a cane in the air to fight.  This joke is one of the earliest examples of the idiom in print:

Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies! 

Because Eve raised the Old Harry, and they both raised Cain.

The Maumee City Express (Ohio), May 16, 1840, page 1.

Although the allusion may not be obvious to a modern reader, the widespread, idiomatic use of “raising one’s cane” in descriptions of fights, suggests that people of the period would have easily understood the joke as a pun. 

Walking Sticks and Canes

Throughout the 1800s, a walking stick or cane was a fashionable symbol of status.  Even into the early 20th Century, a good walking stick or cane lent an air of “jauntiness and dash” to a debonair gentleman.

And (like pants before them), emancipated women in 1916 adopted the “swagger stick” as their own – oh, how “ka-tish”!

The Swagger Stick or Walking Cane Will Be “Ka-Tish” This Spring

Even today, who can say that they do not respect a woman wielding a well-made riding crop?

But, long before they became a mere fashion accessory, canes and walking sticks served, perhaps, a more important function – self-defense.

The Mt. Sterling Advocate (Mt. Sterling, Kentucky), July 21, 1915, page 3.

In the early 1800s, “shaking sticks” and “raising one’s cane” were viewed as threatening gestures; they could get you in trouble, and even land you in jail.

Raising Canes

The phrase, “to raise one’s cane,” was in widespread and regular use for many decades before the idiom, “to raise Cain” first appeared.  “To raise one’s cane” appears in hundreds of sources, referring to menacing, threatening, or attacking with a walking stick; or defending one’s self against such an attack.  The common use of the expression suggests that a mid-1800s audience might easily have understood “to raise Cain” as a punning reference to causing a disturbance with walking stick.

This small sampling of such references illustrates how well known the expression was, and how canes were raised while “raising Cain”:

With regard to the allegation that Purser Southall had raised his cane upon the soldier, Mr. Sturgis, acknowledging that he had raised his cane, (a small rat of whalebone,) denied that it was for the purpose of striking. . . . “Strike if you dare! I am an American officer – strike me if you dare!” – not intending, said Mr. Sturgis, to strike the soldier; but merely defying him to strike.

Nicholas Philip Trist, Case of Captain Abraham Wendell, Jr., of the Brig Kremlin of New York, Arising from an Outrage Perpetrated by Him Upon William Bell, First Officer of Said Brig, in the Port of Havana, July, 1838, [Washington DC, 1840], page 54.

The first blow, as sworn to by every witness who said any thing upon the subject, was given by Darnes with his hand.  Darnes then raised his cane, and Davis his umbrella; blows were dealt in quick succession by Darnes, and for a short time Davis wielded his umbrella pretty vigorously; Darnes bent his cane, turned it in his hands and used the heavy end.  From that time Davis’s slender umbrella was only held up, or whirled backwards and forwards as a shield.

Egerton Browne, Trial of Judge Wilkinson, Dr. Wilkinson, and Mr. Murdaugh on Indictments for the Murder of John Rothwell and Alexander Meeks, Louisville, Daily Reporter, April, 1839.

The old woman cried, “Oh Lord!” and the youth, in ire, muttered an oath, and raised his cane; but I was too quick for him.

Oasis (Oswego, New York), volume 1, number 1, August 12, 1837, page 11.

Mr. Cophagus immediately raised the cane from his nose high above his forehead in so threatenting an attitude, as almost to warrant the other swearing the peace against him . . . .

Atkinson’s Casket (Philadelphia), Volume 10, Number 5, May, 1835,  page 274.

 Anti-Slavery Principles of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, published in the Alton Observer of July 20, 1837. For maintaining which he was – MURDERED!

What are the Doctrines of Anti-Slavery Men? – A young man had become exceedingly angry with an ancient philosopher, and had raised his cane to strike him. “Strike,” said the philosopher – “strike but hear me?”

Vermont Telegraph (Brandon, Vermont), December 6, 1837, page 42.

“By the Lord Harry, I’ll slash you into such ribands that your b—h of a mother shan’t know her cub again.” . . .  But no sooner had he raised his cane to strike . . . .

The Frolics of Puck, Volume 1, 1834, page 76.

“You!” cried the duke, in a rage, “you – “

“The Duke of Friedland bears with no varlets amongst his servants, and George Rothkirch with no insult.”

The duke raised his cane in excess of irritation, and George threw open the window. “I will die,” he exclaimed, “my lord, rather than submit to this . . . .”

The Ladies Museum, volume 30, 1829.

The Milanese . . . – no longer shrinking under the up-raised cane of an Austrian corporal, flet to arms at the first blast of the trumpet that sounded in the cause of Italian independence.

Lady Morgan, Italy, Volume 1, London, H. Colburn, 1821, page 253.

I reproached him with cruelty, no doubt in terms as unbecoming as my passion, till at length irritated by my audacity, he raised his cane to strike me.

The Magpie, or The Maid: a Melo Drame, 1815.

Raising Cain

The idiom, “to raise Cain,” first appeared in print in late 1839; just months before the earliest known publication of the bad pun about Adam and Eve being rowdies because they, “raised Cain”:

The earliest example is a shaggy dog story that ends with yet another bad pun:

A Street Mother. – A married lady at Marblehead, Mass., being often annoyed by her children breaking the Sabbath, once agreed to supply each with a piece of cake who behaved properly upon this day.  They all came in for a share at night, excepting Jo – a ragged little urchin, who cared more for raising Cain than for nick-nacks.  Jo, however thought his claim to a share was as good as any of them, and stepped up to receive it with all the freedom imaginable, but this kind mother put a damper on his hopes, by saying – ‘No, my dear Jo, you have been a bad boy – and you know the Bible says, there is no piece for the wicked.’

The Long Island Farmer, and Queen’s County Advertiser (Jamaica, New York), September 25, 1839, page 3.

Another early example is literally about wielding sticks (shillelaghs); just a coincidence? - or an indication that the writer appreciated a connection between “raising cane” and “raising Cain”?

The Irishmen at the Croton Water Works are raising Cain once more.  Two companies have been ordered to the scene of action this morning to prevent mischief – the workmen threatening to destroy the works and shellalah any body who attempts to prevent their righteous operations.

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), April 18, 1840, page 2.

The earliest example of the “raising Cain” joke appeared a few weeks later,[i] and took on a life of its own; appearing regularly for more than a century: 

What did Adam and Eve do when they were expelled from Eden? They raised Cain.

The Home Journal, April 18, 1857, page 1.

First Family Row.

“Do you know who created the first family row on record?”
“I suppose it was Adam and Eve when they raised Cain.” – Stray Stories.

The Chickasha Daily Express (Oklahoma), July 16, 1907, page 7.

The joke appeared in print as recently as the mid-1990s; it was mentioned in an article about an amateur, octogenarian comedian who memorized jokes from old joke books.[ii] 

The close proximity in time of the earliest example of the joke and the earliest example of the idiom  does not answer the question of which was first.  But bad jokes and puns were the stock-in-trade of traveling minstrel shows during the period, so the joke may have been in circulation long before it was picked up and memorialized in print.  It is also possible, however, that the idiom existed before the joke without appearing in print until just before the joke appeared.  Although it is impossible to determine, with certainty, which came first, the joke appears to have played some role in its longevity.  Even if the joke was not first, the obvious pun would have made it memorable, and may have helped the idiom secure a permanent place in the language.

Raising the Devil

Most sources attribute the origin of the idiom, “raising Cain,” to the sense of raising the murderous spirit of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel.  “To raise,” in that case, would be used in the sense of, ““to summon or cause a spirit to appear by means of incantations” (as if “raised from the underworld”).”[iii]  The suggestion is that “to raise Cain” may have served as a less offensive alternative to the widely used expressions, “to raise the devil” or “to raise hell.”

There is no doubt that the expression, “to raise Cain,” was ultimately used as a less onerous alternative to “raise the devil,” but that does not necessarily explain how or why the expression came into being.  The timing of the pun appearing at about the same time as the expression is suggestive, at least, that the idiom could have been derived from the joke.  Without the pun, it does not seem natural that “Cain” would be used.  Several alternatives for “raise the devil” were already in circulation long before “raising Cain” appeared in print, all of which followed a similar format – “Old [Name]”: 

Old Scratch, Old Harry, Old Nick, or the Devil, it’s all one to me!

The Monthly Traveler, or Spirit of the Periodical Press (Boston), volume 3, number 5, Mzay 1832, page 181.

“To raise Old Scratch,” “to raise Old Nick,” and “to raise Old Harry,” all had their day; “Old Harry” seems to have been the most widely used (as judged by ‘hits’ in database searches), followed by “Old Nick” and “Old Scratch.” 

“To raise old Harry” dates to at least 1812, and was used regularly into the early 20th Century.  In the earlier examples, it was used in a literal sense, referring to sorcerers or magicians who could literally “raise Old Harry;” in later examples, it was used idiomatically, similar to “raising Cain”:

By his sly subtle looks, and his magical books,
Some would think he was raising “old Harry.”

The Gentleman’s Diary; or, The Mathematical Repository; an Almanack, London, 1812.


Be patient, though the load you carry grows heavier with every verst; it does no good to raise Old harry, e’en when our woes are at their worst.

Evening Star (Washington DC), July 31, 1917, page 20. 

“Old Scratch” and “Old Nick” were similarly used as a euphemisms for the devil; and the expressions, “raise Old Scratch” or “raise Old Nick,” were used with a meaning similar to “raise the devil,” “raise hell,” or “raise Cain.”

Although there is a clear connection between Cain’s sin and the Devil, the idiom does not appear to be based on an earlier tradition of using “Cain” as a general euphemism for the devil, or a tradition of invoking the name or spirit of Cain.  Other than the pun, there does not appear to be any specific reason to use “Cain,” as opposed to one of the other, well-established alternatives.

Clearly, “to raise Cain” could have been, and may have been, understood as a mild oath; even without the pun.  But the expression did not appear in print until nearly the same moment that the pun appeared in print.  Without an earlier example of the idiom, or some other evidence suggesting some motivation for using “Cain,” as opposed to the several, common alternatives, I believe that the pun may well have been the origin of the idiom; if not the final straw, helping the idiom take root and grow. 

Cain in Minstrelsy

The joke about Adam and Eve being rowdies was not the first bad pun to compare Cain with a cane:

Why are Adam and Eve the oldest sugar planters?  Because they were the first to raise Cain.

Geneva Gazette and Mercantile Advertiser (Geneva, New York), August 29, 1832, page 4.

Cain puns were also known in non-blackface minstrel shows in England, as early as 1832.  In a spoken portion of a comic song/story entitled, The Mail-Coach Adventure, the narrator (speaking for two characters) runs through a whole litany of biblical puns, in what may be a Cockney accent.  One of the puns swaps "cane" (as in a walking stick) with "Cain":

I had rather stay in that place to all eternity than ride with a naked man, that’s what I would.  Poor fellow, he has been robbed, and almost beaten to death.  Robbed!  Zounds, let us make all imaginable haste, or we shall be robbed too.  Begar, madam, vat objection can you make to have the man vat is killed in the coach? He is dressed as well as the first man in de vorld.  The first man, I grant you, Mounseer, Adam, for instance.  You deserve a Cain for that observation. Ah, but are you Abel to give it me? I was on the Eve of doing it. Here’s language! Punning upon Scripture; I wish I was out of the coach, my goodness! – They’ll all be punished, that’s one good thing – My goodness!

The Universal Songster, Volume 1, London, Jones and Co., page 135 [1832].

Cain imagery may have been even more widespread in the United States, at least within the context of American blackface minstrelsy.  Historian, W. T. Lhamon, Jr. based on entire book on the connection between the theme of Cain and blackface minstrel performances of the 19th Century:

Raising Cain by referring often to his story is a way to license minstrel practice and to establish minstrelsy’s cardinal theme as the constant struggle between resistance and its discipline. . . .

At every phase of blackface performance, the Cain trope was present.

Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop, Boston, Harvard University Press, 1998, pages 117, 118.

The book explores the political and sociological messages inherent in the various versions of the Cain story.  For example, the “mark of Cain” was seen, in part, as a metaphor for blackness and blackface.  If his thesis is correct, the idiom, “raising Cain,” may have had an even deeper significance to audiences at the time, beyond being simply a bad pun.  His assertion of a rich tradition of discussing Cain in minstrel shows also puts the existence of the two “raising Cain” jokes into context.  The British “Cain” pun may also suggest that whatever Cain meant in American blackface minstrelsy may have been more universal.  

Or, perhaps bad puns are universal. In any case, the various punning references to Cain support the notion that “raising Cain” may have originated primarily as a pun, and not as a mild oath.

Shaking Sticks

The phrase, “to shake one’s stick,” in reference to threatening gestures, was in constant and regular use for many decades before the idiom, “more [Blank] than you can shake a stick at” first appeared in print.    “To shake one’s stick” appears in dozens of sources before 1817, the date of the earliest known example of the idiom in print. 

“Shaking a stick” was frequently used to describe one-on-one confrontations.  But it was also used in where a single person threatened, or tried to control, several people or things at once; shaking just the one stick.  One possible, underlying meaning of the idiom may be that if there are too many things to threaten or control shaking just your own stick, there are more than you can “shake a stick at.”

This small sampling of early, literal stick-shaking references may illuminate the underlying allusion latent in the idiom; you be the judge: 

[An old boarding-school schoolmaster] has been mentioned as possessing an influence over the manners and conduct of the inhabitants almost unbounded. . . . “If he shook his stick at the Hall Green, (the place of his residence,) the boys trembled as far as the town land end” (distant half a mile).

The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature (London), Volume 18, Number 214, December 1823, page 683.

As Young Francis was walking through a village with his tutor, they were annoyed by two or three cur dogs, that came running after them . . . .  Francis every now and then stopped and shook his stick at them, or stooped down to pick up a stone . . . .

J. Aikin and Mrs. Barbauld, Evenings at Home, or, The Juvenile Budget Opened, London, Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1819, Volume 6, page 58.

My master saw me and stopped the drove for me to come up; when I got near him he threatened me, shaking his stick over my head, to let me know what I had to expect if I dared to commit another fault.

James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, Hartford, Connecticut, 1817, page 87.[iv]

Sir Oran shook his stick over his head, and the reverend gentleman dropping on his knees, put his hands together, and entreated for mercy, saying “he would confess all.”

Melincourt (Volume 3), London, Hookham, and Baldwon, Cradock, and Joy, 1817, page 202.

Our allusion to the venerated name of the Rector of Aston Sandford, has led this gentleman actually to drag his excellent father before the public, for the purpose of gravely shaking his stick at us.

The Eclectic Review (London), Volume 6, December 1816, page 528.

Tayler stepped quicker and shook his stick.  Van Rensselaer, when he got to the corner, sprung across the gutter.  Tayler had almost overtaken him.  Van Rensselaer turned, and held up his stick in a posture of defence.  Tayler struck twice.  A scuffle ensued.  Van Rensselaer lost his cane.  Saw three sticks aimed at Van Rensselaer’s head . . . .

 Assault and Battery: Report of the Trials of the Causes of Elisha Jenkins vs. Solomon Van Rensselaer etc., Albany, New York, Croswell & Frary, 1808, page 22.

Too Many to Shake a Stick At

The earliest known example of an idiom similar to, “more than you can shake a stick at,” in print is from 1818:

We have in Lancaster as many Taverns as you can shake a stick at.”

Michael Quinion, WorldWideWords (citing the Oxford English Dictionary).

This early version is slightly different from the now-familiar form of the idiom; “as many as you can shake a stick at,” as opposed to, “more than.”  But it seems to express the same or similar sentiment; there are a lot of taverns.  A similar version appeared in 1824 (and a few more times throughout the 1820s):

I tell you what, I’ve got a number of sons, a great many nephews and cousins, and as many distant relations, as you can shake a stick at, and they’ll a’ most all of ‘em go as I go in politics. . . .

Delaware Gazette (Delhi, New York), August 4, 1824, page 2.

The now-familiar form, “more than you can shake a stick at,” appeared in print as early as 1830; in a description of the colorful life of Colonel Plug, an early Ohio River pirate:

His slang-curses were ultra Kentuckian on a ground of yankee; and he had, says my informant, more of this, “than you could shake a stick at.”

American Masonick Record and Albany Saturday Magazine, Volume 3, Number 52, January 23, 1830.

Another early example of the idiom shows that the life of a presidential candidate has not changed much in nearly 200 years:

To be bamboozled about from four o’clock in the morning, till midnight, rain or shine, jammed into one great house to eat a breakfast, and into another great house to eat a dinner, and into another to eat supper, and into two or three others between meals, to eat cooliations, and to have to go out and review three or four rigiments of troops, and then be jammed into Funnel Hall [(Fanieul Hall)] two hours, and shake hands with three or four thousand folks, and then to go into the state House and stand there two or three hours . . . . and then run into a great picture room and see more fine pictures than you could shake a stick at in a week, and then go into some grand gentleman’s house, and shake hands a half an hour with a flock of ladies . . . and up again at four o’clock the next morning and at it.

Seba Smith, The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing of Downingville, Boston, Lilly, Wait, Colman & Holden, 1833, page 203.


The idioms, “to raise Cain” and “more than you can shake a stick at” both appear to be linguistic vestiges of the outmoded fashion of carrying canes or walking sticks.  Raising canes could cause a disturbance.  Shaking sticks might fend off one or two attackers, but if there were too many – you might not be able to shake your stick at all of them; at least not effectively.

The timing of the first appearance of, “raising Cain,” and the appearance of the Adam-and-Eve “raising Cain” (raising cane) pun, seems to support the notion that the joke may be the origin of the idiom.  The well known, idiomatic us of the expression, “raise one’s cane,” in reference to fighting, seems to support the notion that people at the time, would have at least appreciated the pun, even if it were not the absolute origin of the idiom.  The widespread repetition of the joke suggests that the joke may have been memorable enough to be responsible for the spread of, and the persistence of, the idiom over time.

There is no clear or certain explanation of the allusion underlying the idiom, “more than you can shake a stick at.”   However, some of the earlier examples of the expression, “shaking sticks,” suggest that the allusion may relate to circumstances in which there are too many people (or dogs) to handle or control alone, with just one stick.

[i] Adam and Eve as rowdies was not the only “raise Caine” joke making the rounds in 1840.  Another joke, “Why were Adam and Eve the originators of sugar planting? Because they raised the first Cain,” had been making the rounds since at least 1832 (Long Island Farmer and Queen’s County Advertiser, June 21, 1832, page 4); that joke also persisted for decades.
[ii] “He’s Got a Million of ‘Em,” Neal Pollack, Chicago Reader, December 5, 1996 (
[iv] The brig Commerce was an American merchant vessel that ran aground on the coast of Morocco in 1815.  Surviving members of the crew were imprisoned and enslaved by nomadic tribesmen.  The captain, James Riley, published an account of his experiences in the 1820s.

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