In terms of English sayings, more than one meaning is associated with idiomatic expressions regarding the carrot and stick. Variations include "the carrot and the stick," "the carrot or the stick," "a carrot on a stick," and similarly expressed idioms. Two interpretations are the primary understanding of the idiom. Users are either referencing rewards and punishments or referencing incentives and motivation. Typically, the specific meaning is understood through context clues.
Dangling a carrot on a stick is a common variation of this idiom. A speaker using such an idiom typically wants to bring to mind the image of a rider holding a carrot in front of a stubborn donkey or mule. When used in such context, the phrases "dangling a carrot" or "carrot on a stick" reference motivation. By placing a carrot on the end of a long stick, a rider can hold the carrot out in front of a donkey, thus encouraging the donkey to move forward after the carrot.
The most commonly understood use of carrot and stick phrases references rewards and punishments. Using the same donkey example, the idiom "the carrot or the stick" is intended to bring to mind a similar mental image. Instead of dangling the carrot in front of the donkey, however, a cart driver gives the donkey a choice: a carrot as a reward for pulling a cart or the stick as punishment for not pulling the cart. Should a speaker or writer use a phrase such as "the carrot or the stick,” he typically means some form of system for reward and punishment.
Where, when, and why idioms about carrots and sticks came into being in the English language is highly debated. Some credit the first printed use of the idiomatic expressions to an edition of The Economist magazine published in the late 1940s. Others note similar comparisons, although not exact matches, dating back to the late 1800s. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II, used a reference to the carrot and stick idiom in a quote dating to 1938.
Further arguments regarding the original phrasing of the carrot and stick idiom are also common, most often debating whether the original phrasing included the words "or," "on," or "and." One side of the debate credits the original phrasing as being "the carrot or the stick." Other sides of the debate credit the idiom as being "carrot on a stick."