Kicking against the pricks

Kicking against the pricks. Sounds a little crude for a science blog, you think? But, its etymology and meaning are new to me and not what my modern ear imagined them to be.

First, the phrase means to show opposition to those in authority, that much was obvious. It means to rebel, to stick it to the man, to stand up against those in charge, but perhaps to no avail. The modern vernacular might imagine the term “prick” to be a crude term of abuse, referring to one in authority euphemistically as a penis. But, the pricks in question are the sharpened sticks, the goads, that an ancient, and modern, cattle handler may use to control cattle.

The usage is to be found in the King James Bible (Acts 9:5) where Saul is told, on the road to Damascus, that it is hard for him to kick against the pricks. In other words, he is like an ox being goaded on the way to market and he cannot rebel by kicking out when those in authority attempt to coerce him with their metaphoprical sharpened sticks.

Ultimately, the ox must move when pricked by the driver regardless of how much it might kick. A modern usage might be heard in reference to a newly incarcerated criminal. The convicted felon will soon learn not to kick against the pricks, or the pricks, the prison guards, will make their life more difficult than it might otherwise be.