Ask Language Log: Sticked/Stuck a landing?

« previous post | next post »

From Charlie Clingen:

To stick a landing gone viral since last Friday. But where does it come from and which is right:   "SpaceX finally stuck a sea landing Friday, when the company's first-stage booster glided" (from an online news item) or "SpaceX finally sticked a sea landing Friday…"?

I believe that the expression "stick a landing" comes from gymnastics, where it refers to landing after a flip, vault or dismount without taking additional steps to avoid falling over. The idea is that your feet stick in place once they touch the floor.

Thus MW gives as sense 10 of the verb stick "to execute (a landing) flawlessly in gymnastics".

I don't know how old the expression is among gymnasts, but the metaphorical extension to other areas seems to have started in the 1990s, as this Google Books Ngrams plot suggests:

The earliest (rather cautious) such extension that I found in the NYT is in a theater review from 1998:

This perfectly merry escapade of a play would appear to have been given every opportunity to succeed under the direction of Mr. Irwin, a thinking man's clown who, in shows like "Fool Moon," has made pratfalls look as graceful as dismounts from the high bar.

But even a good gymnast falters now and then, and despite the exquisite apparatus Feydeau provides him, Mr. Irwin fails here to stick the landing.

The context of reviews seems to be especially common for such usages — a small sample from the current Google News index:

Superman #50 Sticks The Landing
FX stuck the landing with the final episode of its outstanding miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” Tuesday night.
In addition to nailing his performance as an upper crusty New York media celebrity, Bowles also stuck the landing when it came to his styling
Assuming Batman #51 doesn't turn out to be a disaster of epic proportions, it's safe to say that Snyder and Capullo stuck the landing on their years-long Batman run.
It just traded one set of flaws for a different one, and I still don't think any of the series so far have really "stuck the landing" on a season finale.
When HBO stuck the landing on the red wedding, and Twitter and Facebook exploded in communal grief, I almost literally rolled off my chair with glee.

As for the stuck v. sticked question, stuck certainly seems right to me, since it been the regular preterite form of stick for a long time. This shouldn't need any evidence, but for lagniappe, here's William Shakespeare, "A Lover's Complaint":

But, woe is me! too early I attended
A youthful suit—it was to gain my grace—
Of one by nature's outwards so commended,
That maidens' eyes stuck over all his face:

It's true that metaphorical verbifications sometimes regularize, as in "flied out to left field" instead of "flew out to left field". But the stick in "stuck a landing" is a verb from birth, I think.




  1. Dick Margulis said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 6:10 am

    "Sticked" certainly exists as a verb form having to do with actions involving sticks (of wood, for example). Not relevant here, I know. But if someone has never listened to commentary on a gymnastics competition and is therefore unfamiliar with the concept of sticking a landing, the question is a natural one.

  2. Mr Punch said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 7:59 am

    "Stick" in the gymnastics sense is barely, if at all, metaphorical – "to attach by or as if causing to adhere to a surface" is a standard meaning of "stick" and a fair description of a "clean" landing. It's also descriptive of what that rocket did. Irregular form justified.

  3. gribley said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 8:02 am

    I always associate this phrase with Kerri Strug's landing on an injured ankle in the 1996 Olympics. I don't know whether I'd heard the term before then, but it was certainly used a lot. That looks consistent with the ngrams data.

  4. Brett said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    @gribley: Kerri Strug did not stick that landing. What was impressive was that she stayed on her feet, despite one ankle being fractured. However, she immediately lifted her injured right leg and executed a small hop on her left foot.

  5. January First-of-May said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    I personally had to think a bit to realize it's not "struck a landing" (as in "strike"), which seems a much more intelligible metaphor (for a well-performed landing). Future eggcorn territory?
    The phrase "to stick a landing" is completely unfamiliar to me (this post is the first time I recall seeing it), but if I had to put it in the relevant tense, I would definitely use "stuck".

    I did, however, think for quite a bit as to whether the respective form of "to stick out" (as in "to protrude, to be prominent") is "stuck out" or "sticked out" (and which sense of "stick" it comes from, for that matter). I almost said it's definitely the latter. (Wiktionary says it's definitely the former, but doesn't elaborate on the etymology.)

  6. BZ said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 9:59 am

    @Mr Punch,
    The problem is that standard "stick" is either intransitive, with the subject naming the things that are sticking (or one or more of them could be implied or appear elsewhere in the sentence), or follows the pattern "stick X to (or with or on or and) Y" where X and Y are the objects that are sticking. The only exception I can think of is when the object refers to more than one item, followed by a "together" a in "stick these together". In "stick a landing", the landing is not sticking to anything, and the objects doing the sticking are not named, so it's a completely different form. Like January First-of-May, I've never encountered this meaning before, and wouldn't be able to puzzle out what "stick" means here.

  7. E W Gilman said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 10:18 am

    Your "fly" example is not a good one for regularization. "Grinded it out" is a better; I've been seeing or hearing it for a couple of years now.

  8. Guy said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    @January First-of-May

    My understanding is that both senses of stick are from the same root. The linking metaphor is that if you stick (stab) something with a stick (branch) so that it's held in place and can't move, then it's stuck. The "trans" part of "transfix" shows a similar metaphor.

  9. Nick Barnes said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 12:23 pm

    In aerospace, we've had "[dead] stick landing" (also "deadstick landing"), meaning a specific act of great flying skill, since the 1920s at least. So I've always associated "stick the landing" with that.

  10. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    "Stick a landing" is in common use among ballet dancers as well as gymnasts, though I'm unable to shed light on which group originated this usage.

    BZ: "Stick it out" (in the sense of unwavering commitment) has, I think, a similar form and meaning to the "stick" in "stick the landing".

  11. DWalker said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    "SpaceX finally stuck a sea landing Friday, when the company's first-stage booster glided"

    I SO want to see "glud" there in place of "glided", to go with "stuck". Swim, Swam, Swum.

  12. John Lawler said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 2:23 pm

    From 1984:

  13. Ethan said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

    Given that the subject is aviation, I made the same immediate mental association with "deadstick landing" as Nick Barnes. In that context the form "sticked" is out there:

    "had ever dead-sticked an F-100"
    "he deadsticked his Mustang down to inevitable capture"

    That interpretation runs afoul of the problem that a deadstick landing is one where you have functioning control surfaces but no propulsion ("stick == propellor"). Here we have a successful landing by a vehicle with lots of propulsion but no control surfaces.

  14. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    It actually does have control surfaces–they are grid fins:

    There's a video from a camera on the outside of the booster in which you can see the fins actively steering on the way down.

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 3:45 pm

    Here's "stuck the landing" from International Gymnast in 1978, along with "a solid stick". It's a snippet view, but the references to 1979 and 1980 in the volume seem to refer to the future, so the date is probably right.

  16. koj said,

    April 12, 2016 @ 4:26 pm

    I was a gymnast from 1984-1997. 'Stuck the landing' is correct.

  17. Dan S. said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    I'd always assumed that "deadstick landing" referred to a dead control stick, but indeed @Ethan's etymology is supported by the OED. Or at least by the 1934 Webster's cited by the OED:

    "1934 Webster's New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. Dead stick (Aviation), a propeller that has ceased to revolve because the engine has stopped. — dead-stick adj."

  18. Catanea said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 12:58 pm

    Whereas I immediately thought of the (old fashioned?) aviators' term for take-off: "unstick" & assumed landing must be the opposite: stick.

  19. Jay Sekora said,

    April 13, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

    I had never (to my recollection) encountered the gymnastics term, and had always assumed (with no particular evidence) that “to stick the landing” had something to do with a pilot’s joystick, so I would have used “sticked the landing” as the past tense, on the assumption that stick in this case was a verbed noun, and a separate (if ultimately etymologically related) verb from the irregular intransitive verb “stick”. Then again, when I was a kid, I knew what the word /'deɪn.dʒɚ/ meant, and I knew that caution signs in storybooks I read said DANGER (/'dæŋ.ɚ/), but I had no idea those were supposed to be the same word, so maybe my intuitions on this subject should be taken with a grain of salt.

  20. Guy said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 3:22 am

    @Jay Sekora

    I'm amused at /ˈdæŋ.ɚ/. I think I was about 17 or 18 before I realized that I'd only ever heard /əˈɹɑɪ̯/ spoken and had only ever seen /ˈɔɹ.i/ written.

  21. Derwin McGeary said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 7:26 am

    @Guy @Jay Sekora

    See also \ˈsə-təl\ and \ˈsəbtəl\ and (when I was learning Russian) "и тогда ли" (spoken) versus "и так далее" (written). Is there a name for this phenomenon?

  22. GH said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    It took me a long time to realize that "tsk-tsk" and "tut-tut" were not something people actually say as written, but were meant to represent the clicking sounds I was familiar with.

    (M-W says an alveolar click, but audio clips of alveolar clicks online seem to range widely in what sound they represent.)

  23. BZ said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    @Gregory Kusnick,
    If "stick it out" is related to "stick to it" then the "it" is still one of the objects doing the sticking (the other being the subject), though the presence of "out" makes it hard to analyze. I suppose then you can make a case for the out of place "out" being similar to the out of place "landing", but in any case, both are set idioms and neither construction is productive. Consider a poster sticking to the wall by way of glue. Does "the glue sticks the poster out" (stick it out) or "the poster sticks the glue" (the rocket/dancer sticks the landing) make any sense?

  24. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    BZ: "Hang the poster" works, so I don't see why "stick the poster" wouldn't. The landing plays the same role as the poster, not the glue.

  25. BZ said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

    "stick the poster" is normal English if followed by "to the wall", while "hang the poster" does not need this. "sick (or hang) the poster out" (which would be analogous to "stick it out") doesn't work at all. My point was that the existence of "stick it out" does not indicate that this type of construction is productive.

  26. Guy said,

    April 14, 2016 @ 4:25 pm


    I would say that "stick (NP) (PP)" is always grammatical. I'm a little surprised that you judge "stick the poster out" as ungrammatical, much more so that you judge "hang the poster out" so. Of course, the meanings there are not systematically related to "stick it out" in the sense of "keep persevering", or "last through it". I think you might be getting distracted by poor contextualization (or else our idiolects are very different). "I wanted to see the wind batter the poster as we drove down the freeway, so I stuck the poster out". I do agree, however, that "stick the landing" is a special idiom that doesn't work with any old object. Though I think the difference in meaning from more ordinary uses of "stick" is basically syntactic (unusual complementation and correspondending semantic roles) and not really any kind of metaphorical use of "stick".

RSS feed for comments on this post