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What It Means to Be a ‘Stick in the Mud’

People take a mud bath during the "Iron mud" festival in the town of Zheleznovodsk, in Stavropol region, Russia, August 24, 2019. (REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko)
People take a mud bath during the "Iron mud" festival in the town of Zheleznovodsk, in Stavropol region, Russia, August 24, 2019. (REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko)
What It Means to Be a ‘Stick in the Mud’
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And now Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

In many places in the world, spring brings a lot of rain. And this can lead to a lot of mud. So today, let’s talk about a mud expression!

What do you think a stick in the mud is? Well, I’m sure you can imagine a wooden stick … stuck in the mud. But in American English, a stick in the mud is far more than that.

A stick in the mud is a boring or uninteresting person. They do not try anything new. They are not willing to take a risk. They also could be slow and old-fashioned.

Sometimes sticks in the mud have unpopular or outdated beliefs. They are not progressive. Or it could be a combination of all or some of these things.

So, a person could be called a stick in the mud for many reasons. But we always use this expression to show disapproval. So, it’s an insult.

However, keep this in mind. A person does not always have to be a stick in the mud to be called a stick in the mud. I should explain.

Let’s say you are at a party with friends. Now, usually in your friend group, you are the life of the party. This means you are the one at the party who is having the most fun. You also create fun for others. You join whatever game or activity is happening.

But at this party, maybe you don’t feel well. Or maybe you just received some bad news. Perhaps you need to be up early the next day for an important test. Whatever the reason, you are sitting in the back of the room and are not really talking much to anyone. So, you are not acting like your usual self. And you haven’t told anyone why. So, you should not be surprised when your best friend asks you, “Why are you being such a stick-in-the-mud?”

Maybe next time you should tell your best friend when something is bothering you or when you are not well.

We have other names for a stick-in-the-mud person.

We could call them a stuffed shirt. This means they are all business, all the time. They are no fun at all. If you like words that rhyme, you could call them a fuddy-duddy.

Fuddy-duddies are different from stuffed shirts, though. A fuddy-duddy would be the old-fashioned, doesn’t-like-change type of stick in the mud. A stuffed shirt is the always-very-serious-and-business-minded type of stick in the mud.

You can also use stick-in-the-mud as an adjective before a noun. For example, a friend of mine always does as she is told, never tries anything new or takes any risks. She has a bit of a stick-in-the-mud personality.

Or you could say someone has a stick-in-the-mud attitude. A person who always has a stick-in-the-mud attitude could also be called a downer. This means they bring people down.

Some word experts say this expression comes from an image of feet or the wheel of a horse carriage stuck in mud. Both are unable to go anywhere. They cannot progress. So, in early days the term stick in the mud, usually described someone who remained in a difficult situation, either by choice or because they were stuck.

And that’s all the time we have for this Words and Their Stories.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo wrote this for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

boring – adj. dull and uninteresting

old-fashioned – adj. from or like that of an earlier time

outdated – adj. no longer useful or acceptable : not modern or current

progressive – adj. moving forward : a person who favors new or modern ideas especially in politics and education

stuffed shirt – n. a smug, conceited, and usually pompous person often with an inflexibly conservative or reactionary attitude

fuddy-duddy – n. one that is old-fashioned, unimaginative, or conservative

personality – n. the qualities (as moods or habits) that make one human being different from others

attitude – n. a mental position with regard to a fact or state : the way you think and feel about someone or something

carriage – n. a wheeled vehicle, especially : a horse-drawn vehicle designed for private use and comfort