Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you happen to know the origin of the phrase “I’m stumped.” It’s been a question without an answer for many months among my friends. — Chris & Steve Dahlquist-Abrams.
Say, just a minute here. Exactly how many of you are asking this question, anyway? That’s a pretty funny “I” you’ve got going there. So far I count two names, but as far as I know, you’ve got a bunch of your friends hidden in the trunk, trying to sneak into this column without buying their own tickets. Oh, well, the more the merrier, I suppose. Come on in, but mind the furniture and please don’t track those dubious pronouns all over the carpet.
So, stumped by “stumped,” are we? It’s really a fairly simple story. “Stump” as a verb meaning “to frustrate, baffle, puzzle or render at a loss” comes from “stump,” the noun, which itself comes from the old German word “stumpf.” There are several kinds of “stumps” in the English language, but all of them stem from the primary sense of the word, which is, as the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “The part remaining when a limb or other part of the body is amputated or severed.” By metaphorical extension, “stump” has come to mean the part left behind when nearly anything from a pencil to a sailboat mast has been worn down or broken off. But the answer to your question lies in “stump” used for “The projecting portion of the trunk of a felled or fallen tree that remains fixed in the ground.” That’s right — the run-of-the-mill, inconvenient and unmovable tree stump.
Now what does the average person do when in the vicinity of a tree stump? One might be tempted to say, “Climb up on it and make a political speech,” which is, in fact, the origin of phrases such as “stump speech” and “on the stump.” But the average person doesn’t make a speech on a stump — he or she stumbles over it. Middle English even had a verb for it — “stumpen,” meaning “to stumble, as if over a tree stump” — which became our verb “to stump” which has so perplexed all of you.