“Sticky wicket”

Two readers have independently alerted me to this recent quote in the New York Times:

“It’s a sticky wicket for Obama,” said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin, saying any aggressive move on such a high-profile question would be seen as “a slap in the face to his base right after they’ve just handed him a chance to realize his presidential dreams.”

I initially resisted investigating sticky wicket, relegating it to the telly-lift-old chap sort of term that in the U.S. is a stereotype of a Britishism, and thus can’t be a proper NOOB. I was wrong. It turns out that the Times has used the phrase six additional times in the past two years, all either by its own reporter or a quote by an American source. For example, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal sportswriter Tom Haudricourt commented in 2010 about the Hall of Fame prospects of baseball’s Mark McGwire, who had just admitted to using steroids: “Should we be voting guys in who admit to doing it? The sticky wicket just got stickier.”

The original British expression dates from the 1880s, according to the OED, and is (sorry for stating the obvious, to some) is a cricket metaphor. Thus it’s traditionally phrased as (batting) on a sticky wicket. The batting on is always lost in the U.S.

Looking at Google Ngram data (below) makes me think I need a new category for this bad boy. It’s a quintessentially British expression that’s so quintessential, it’s hardly used there anymore. Meanwhile, it has gradually grown in the U.S. from being an exotic novelty item to a solid NOOB–to the point that, in 2004, it was as popular here as it was there! Google’s data only goes up to 2008; I bet that at this point, there are more U.S. sticky wickets than British ones.

Google Ngram showing popularity of the phrase "sticky wicket" in Britain (blue line) and the U.S. (red line), 1915-2008
Google Ngram showing popularity of the phrase “sticky wicket” in Britain (blue line) and the U.S. (red line), 1915-2008

14 thoughts on ““Sticky wicket”

  1. Sticky wickets rarely occur in cricket these days: the term refers to a soil that has been affected by overnight rain, but it has become common practice to use covers
    to prevent this.

    My sense is that the term is used metaphorically at least as much in the US as the UK

  2. Re. “…at this point, there are more U.S. sticky wickets than British ones.”
    It’s not the same, but this brings to mind a situation wherein the general populace picks up on a hip phrase, or adults on a teen term, the very act of which makes it obsolete among the original set.

  3. It may make you feel better on the US side of the Atlantic to know that people over here are always talking about “stepping up to the plate”, even though we don’t have such a plate in our games.

    It is so prevalent that, amusingly enough in this case, even the England Test team’s then captain, Andrew Strauss, could say it without blinking: “Tomorrow’s day’s cricket is going to be a very important one to this side, all 11 of us have to step up to the plate, go out there and win the game for England,” said Strauss.

    The term sticky wicket used to be a description of actual playing conditions, illustrated in this passage from The Guardian: “The issue of circumspect accumulation or constipated batting, depending on your viewpoint, dominated much of the Yorkshire cricket in the 1970s. Uncovered pitches and the perils of sticky wickets had bred caution among those raised on them and a determination not to throw their wicket away when conditions were in the batsman’s favour”. Nowadays it is mostly metaphorical, as pitches are covered when it rains and thus kept dry.

  4. I’ve just heard it mentioned in an episode of Batman series 3 ( Eartha Kitt as Catwoman).
    Batman says to Alfred “This is one of your sticky wickets, Alfred…”

    Camp as a row of tents !

  5. I’m sure I’ve heard/read the expression “in a sticky wicket” (rather than “on a sticky wicket”) more than once in American sources. This suggests to me that American users are envisaging a sticky window frame, giving the expression a different metaphorical twist, perhaps taking it beyond NOOB status altogether.

  6. I’m a native speaker of British English and I have never heard anyone include the word “batting” when using “sticky wicket”. On the whole, I think instead of saying “That fellow is batting a sticky wicket”, you would actually say something like “that’s a bit of a sticky wicket” when discussing a thorny problem. That’s certainly how I tend to use it.

  7. But that is because the phrase has left behind the literal context (previous contributors have explained why this is dying out) and become a metaphor whose users may be unaware of its history.

  8. Sheldon Cooper uses the phrase “sticky wicket” in the Big Bang Theory, Not the only Britishism he’s used.

    As for “sticky wickets”, they have virtually ceased to exist in reality wioth the advent of covers. They really applied in Australia where a deluge of rain followed by hot sun could lead to a very sticky wicket where the ball would be almost unplayable. Or at least it is according to an ancient Dennis Compton annual that my father owned.

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