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Stamping / Stomping Grounds

Blame it on the moose. Mooses. Meese?

Dear Word Detective: What are they and which is correct: “stamping grounds” or “stomping grounds”? — Kerry Humphrey.

Y’know, I was just thinking. The English language is like the freezer in your refrigerator, isn’t it? Wait, put down that telephone and bear with me a moment. You’re looking for something to eat, but when you open the freezer, there’s nothing immediately apparent but a few ancient frozen burritos and the remnants of some chili made last winter. But if you dig all the way to the back (a disturbing form of time travel), you sometimes find something awesome, such as a microwave Indian dinner that turns out to be quite good, rather like this question, which showed up in my email, buried under a frozen mountain of ancient spam.

To answer your question directly (for a change), both “stamping grounds” and “stomping grounds” (as well as either phrase with the singular form “ground”) are fine, and both mean, in general usage, “a place where a person or group usually hangs out; a general area in which a person or particular group of people can usually be found” (“New Orleans was the stomping grounds for all the greatest pianists in the country,” Alan Lomax, 1950).

The earliest appearance in print of “stamping ground” found so far was in 1821; “stomping ground” showed up a bit later, in 1854. “Stamp” and “stomp” are, etymologically, the same word; while “stamp” goes back to the Middle English “stampen,” our modern “stomp” developed as a variant of “stamp” in the US in the early 19th century.

The root sense of “stamp” is “to stamp or press down heavily on something with the foot,” and most senses of the verb have carried that connotation, either literally or figuratively, as in “stamping out a rebellion” as one would stamp out a fire. The use of “stamp” to mean “strike an impression on or into something” dates back to the 16th century; the “stamp” we stick on a postcard was originally a mark made by an official seal “stamped” on mail indicating that postage had been paid. This sense of “stamp” meaning “distinctive and distinguishing mark” has also given us such figurative uses as “stamp” meaning “to impress indelibly on one’s memory” (“The picture of the streets through which he was conducted … remained for ever stamped upon his memory,” 1885) or to mark with a notable characteristic (“Its beauty was singularly stamped with a grave and stately sadness,” 1838).

“Stamping grounds” (and, of course, “stomping grounds”) are used, as we’ve seen, to describe the common hangouts of humans. But the figure of speech actually comes from the social behavior of wild animals. The “stamping grounds” of such animals as deer, moose, elephant, etc., are the places where the animals frequently congregate in substantial numbers, in the course of which conventions they mill around and “stamp down” the vegetation and soil. Depending on the size and ferocity of the animals, it can be wise to avoid disturbing critters in their “stamping grounds” (“I found myself near one of these ‘stamping grounds’, and a simultaneous roar from five hundred infuriated animals gave notice of my danger,” 1862). Interestingly, although “stamping ground” first appeared in print in 1821, that first appearance was in the figurative sense applying to people, not in the original “herd of irritable critters” sense (“It is unnecessary to undertake to give you any details of affairs in your old Stamping-ground.”).

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