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Among the many famous lines in Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, is the following:

Lady Macbeth: 'We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we'll not fail.'

I believe that the line is partially responsible for the coinage of sticking point, whose meaning today is quite different.

Examples of usage:

  1. ‘safety issues have been a sticking point in the negotiations’

  2. ‘This time the environment is shaping up as a key sticking point, due to concerns that some nations may use it as a protectionist measure.’

  3. ‘The movement of people is set to prove a major sticking point between the EU and the British government, which is seeking to curb immigration in the wake of the vote.’ [source]

Oxford Dictionary defines it

sticking point
An obstacle to progress towards an agreement or goal.

While Merriam-Webster claims that its first known use was in 1946, and defines it as

an item (as in negotiations) resulting or likely to result in an impasse

  • What did William Shakespeare mean by sticking place?

Its meaning in Macbeth: be firm, unwavering, is radically different from today's sticking point.

  • What, or where is this sticking place today?

  • Is there any difference in meaning between sticking place and sticking point?

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  • For nany words and phrases, even the best scholars just have to make their best guess at the meaning. Try this version, or one of many others on Google Books: books.google.com/… Sep 28, 2016 at 11:34
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    To be stuck is to be bemired or otherwise unable to progress physically. A sticking point is thus one that impedes the progress of a negotiation. The sticking place in Macbeth is the stable mounting surface to which something is fastened, as with a carpenter's screw-clamp.
    – TimR
    Sep 28, 2016 at 12:41
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    Both meanings have to do with motionlessness, but in the one case we want to be moving (the wagon's stuck in mud) and in the other case we want to prevent movement (so we can work on the item when it is held firmly by the clamp).
    – TimR
    Sep 28, 2016 at 12:49
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    Another possiblw meaning for sticking place: in Elizabethan usage the word screw could be female and male, like modern electrical plugs and other kinds of mated connectors. The female screw was the bored hole into which the male screw-spindle was inserted. The point at which the spindle could be inserted no further could be regarded as the sticking place. leme.library.utoronto.ca/search
    – TimR
    Sep 28, 2016 at 14:29
  • @TRomano please write an answer, I quite like that last theory.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 28, 2016 at 14:47

2 Answers 2

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According to dictionary.com the expression sticking place corresponds to the more common sticking point:

  • Also called "sticking point", the place or point at which something stops and holds firm. Origin 1570

The Free Dictionary cites screw (one's) courage to the sticking place as an idiomatic expression:

  • To remain bold, resolute, determined, and courageous, especially in the face of possible danger, difficulty, hardship, or adversity. Taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth:

    • I'm really nervous about asking Sarah out on a date, but I'm going to screw my courage to the sticking place and ask her by the end of the day.

and Ngram shows a number of current usages of the idiomatic expression such as:

From Prolegomena:

  • Have you screwed up your courage to the sticking-place? Do you intend to be freemen or slaves? Are you inclined to hope for a fair day's wages for a fair day's work? Ask yourselves these questions, and remember that your safety depends on....

According to WWW, though Skakespeare never said what he exactly meant by that expression, the 1911 OED edition accepts as probable that it may have something to do with “screwing up the chords of string instruments to their proper degree of tension”.

  • The phrase sticking place in that form and sense does appear first in Macbeth, spoken to the thane of Glamis by his wife when encouraging him to murder Duncan........ Today we’re much more likely to talk simply about screwing up our courage, another form of the same expression.

  • The idea is of a place where something stops and holds fast. If Macbeth does this, he won’t change his mind but stay with his previous decision to act against King Duncan. However, nobody is certain what the sticking-place is — as so often, Shakespeare omitted to tell us what he meant and sticking-place appears in English only in reference to this line.

  • The Clarendon Shakespeare, published in Oxford in 1869, suggested it refers to “some engine or mechanical contrivance”. In a note in another Shakespeare play in the same series, Troilus and Cressida, the editors argue that it had something to do with “screwing up the chords of string instruments to their proper degree of tension”. The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, published in 1911, accepts this as the correct answer.

  • As things stand, however, we’ve no way of deciding for certain which allusion, if either, is what Shakespeare had in mind.

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A Google search for this idiom finds multiple places that confidently say that this expression refers to preparing a crossbow to be ready to fire. Even the World Wide Words link offered in the accepted answer mentions this theory.

A heavy crossbow is cocked by using a windlass. Cranking the windlass pulls back the bolt carrier (which tightens the string) until the bolt carrier reaches the latch that holds it fast. Then squeezing the trigger mechanism releases the latch and the crossbow fires. It seems possible that the "screwing" of the quote refers to cranking a windlass, and the "sticking-point" is the point at which the latch captures the bolt carrier and the crossbow is ready.

I don't know for sure if this is what Shakespeare intended, but IMHO it's more plausible than tightening strings on a musical instrument because there is no particular "sticking point" on a musical instrument. And, the parallel between getting courage ready for murder and getting a weapon ready for battle use seems apt; why would Shakespeare be bringing up a musical instrument in this context?

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