The first thing you have to remember is never to say "cane" when you mean "walking stick."

"Canes are medical," says Herbert Golinski, the Connecticut manufacturer who claims to be the man behind the rage for walking sticks. "Canes are for when you limp, but a walking stick is a way of life."

One thing is certain: You see more people with sticks this year than ever. The last time walking sticks were in fashion was the Gay Nineties. But in the past year Britches of Georgetown has sold 500 of Golinski's sticks, and local collectors are coming out of the cloakroom. Some of them sport dozens of sticks.

Golinski's product has a solid brass knob and finial, with a nylon tip. It is beautifully balanced and made of northern white ash, like baseball bats, and retails for close to $30. In Maine, the stripped-alder Katahdin cane costs $3.

"Canes are very ethnic, you know," says attorney Sidney Friedberg, a Washington collector who has at least 30 walking sticks, mostly picked up as souveniors of his travels. "When I began buying canes in every country I visited, I was amazed to find that you can usually tell where they came from."

He still has his first stick, one he made himself at age 9. He is now 64.

Of course, there are all sorts of walking sticks: ebony, rosewood, cherry, briar, bamboo, cactus, beech, maple hickory cedar and blackthorn, not to mention ivory whalebone and horn, and the handles can be round, square, curved, T-shaped, L-shaped or carved with figures, in every imaginable solid material up to and including lucite. There is a name for the study of sticks: ambulistics.

Area antique dealers report a run on old ca - uh, walking sticks, and if you go to London you can find several shops that deal in nothing else and manufacture their own. You are fitted for the stick and it is sawn and tipped to you requirements. In Ireland there is such a fad for blackthorns that novelty shops sell watch-chain miniatures.

There are even styles of walking with your stick. Golinski, a 54-year-old walking enthusiast who strides five miles a day rain or shine, says he rarely touches the tip to the ground, preferring to swing it about or heft on his shoulder. He has developed 18 different exercises to practice while walking.

People have been swinging sticks almost as long as they have been people. The Riddle of the Sphinx, that lion-bodied, woman-headed sibly of Thebes who ate anyone who failed to solve the problem was: What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

It was Oedipus who gave the right answer (and made the sphinx so mad she curled up and died) - simply, a person, who crawls in infancy and in old age uses - a stick.

For centuries the stick was a smybol of authority, an abstract version of the cavemen's club, and kings, bishops and judges carried various forms of scepter or staff. Some kings went around with both scepter and staff, which must have been a trial.

It was supposed to have been Henry VIII who popularized the stick qua stick in England.He owned a gold-plated number with built-in knife, ruler, perfume vial and cache for gold pieces.

In France, it was Louis XIV (it would be) who made the walking stick a mark of elegance in his court. Besides, everyone had such high heels that they could barely keep their balance without help. In some periods, as in the British Regency era, sticks were slim and tapered. At other times they had to be massive and threatenig. Or monogrammed. Or crooked. Or swung from the wrist by a string.

Surely there is no American cane more famous than the gold-handled gutta-percha stick that felled the bitter antislavery senator, Charles Sumner, on the Senate floor in 1856. The cane belonged to Rep. Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, who was settling a score with Sumner. Sumner was three years in recovering. The cane was broken.(You can see it to day with a replacement shaft at the Bostonian Society in Boston.) And southerners deluged Brooks with gift walking sticks.

This may not be the place to bring up the current to-do over the decision to bar the white canes of the blind from airplane seats. There are still plenty of walking sticks to talk about. There are children's stick There is Bat Masterson's stick. There is the stick that becomes a microscope, the stick that turns into a rudimentary violin, watch sticks, ruler sticks, folding sticks, cigarette lighter sticks.

There are sticks with swords inside, sticks whose shadow casts a profile of Napoleon or the celebrity of your choice, moneky-headed sticks, fertility sticks, spiked sticks (Ivan the Terrible used to spike the foot of a subject he was talking to, by way of buttonholing him), sticks that turn into seats, camera tripods, umbrellas and flutes, sticks containing flashlights, pistols, snuffboxes, flasks, augers, and even, at the 1939 New York World's Fair, rolled-up souvenir maps.

"Once in Israel I couldn't find a stick," Sidney Friedberg recalls, "but finally we met an old Arab leaning on a staff and we dickered with him and he sold it for 50 cents. When I took it through customs - this was just before the Six-Day War, so things were a little tense - the guard had just one question: 'Where does it open?'"

But that was nothing compared to his tributions in bringing home a Japanese sword-cane he had bought in Denmark. It wasn't customs that gave him trouble, but the security guards on the New York-Washington air shuttle.

"They were baffled. I missed two planes while they called their headquarters. 'What's our policy on swords?' Eventually they let me bring it on, but I couldn't carry it. It rode in the cockpit."