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shameless pleading

Take the studs

You’re not the boss of me.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up in the Tennessee Valley, and all my life I’ve heard the phrase “took the studs,” meaning to become stubborn. It’s usually used to refer to a mule — a mule “took the studs” when he refused to pull the plow any further. But it’s also applied to people who are being unreasonable on a given subject, as in “Mom wanted my brother to become a doctor, but he took the studs.” Any clue where this came from? Does anyone anywhere else in the world use this phrase? — Judith Weaver.

This is my favorite kind of question. Someone asks about a word, phrase or saying they’ve heard all their life. They understand the meaning perfectly, but the logic of the phrase and its origin are a complete mystery. I, having never heard said phrase in my life, poke around for a while in the musty “dead tree” reference books people keep telling me I should throw away. Finally, with one hand tied behind my back (shooing cats off the keyboard, actually), I hit pay dirt and solve the mystery. Yay me! Of course, as a wise person once said, “If I see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants … and stolen their stuff.”

Now comes the hard part, actually explaining “took the studs,” which, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), is used in the US South and South Midlands to mean exhibiting “a fit of stubborn opposition, balkiness” (“Pap has taken the studs, and I have made up my mind to leave here for good and all,” 1891). The earliest citation in DARE for “take the studs” (or “get” or “have”) comes from 1797, and it’s clear that it’s a term primarily applied to balky horses and mules, and, by figurative extension, to uncooperative people.

There are two “stud” nouns in English. The older is “stud” meaning “a post or support” (as in the “studs” inside the walls of a house) or “something projecting from a surface” (as in the “stud” of an earring or cuff-link). This “stud” dates back to about 850 and comes from Germanic roots with the sense of “support.” The other sort of “stud,” which appeared about 1000, comes from Indo-European roots with the meaning of “stand,” “things standing,” or “herd,” and originally referred to a herd of horses or other animals kept by one person, especially for breeding.

And now the good news (for me, at least): neither of those “studs” has anything to do with “take the studs.” The US phrase “take the studs” is actually a modified form of the old English dialect phrase “take the sturdy” or “take the sturdies.”

“Sturdy” in common usage means, of course, “solid,” “strong,” “resolute” and similar things. One of its older meanings, first appearing in Chaucer in the late 14th century, is “defiant of destructive agencies or force; strong, stout” (Oxford English Dictionary (OED)) as a house or bridge might be described as “sturdy.”

In senses applied to people, all now considered obsolete, “sturdy” meant “hard to manage, intractable, refractory; rebellious, disobedient” and “obstinate, immovable in opinion” (OED) (“My sonn doth begine to be [too] sturdie for my government,” c. 1635). That’s “take the studs” as applied to animals and people in a nutshell. The change in form from “sturdy” to “stud” was simply the result of time and the distance, geographic and cultural, from 14th century England to the southern US. To “take the studs” thus means “to take a stubborn and uncooperative stance or attitude.”

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