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.