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shameless pleading

Stanch / Staunch / Stem

Your potayto|potahto is leaking.

Dear Word Detective: In 2006 you gave an answer regarding the different meanings of “staunch” as a verb and as an adjective.  I have a different question regarding why words that have similar meanings, e.g., to stop the flow of a liquid, get associated with a particular liquid.  Thus “staunch the blood” and “stem the tide” are common associations. I have found many sites that define “staunch” (the verb) as stopping the flow of a liquid, “especially blood,” but nowhere have I found why “especially blood”?  There is nothing in the etymology that gives a clue. I don’t have a term paper riding on this, just a 16-year old patient with Asperger’s Syndrome who hates words. Can you help? — Michael Kalm.

Hates words? I’m gonna venture a guess that he or she is primarily annoyed by the inconsistency of words, especially the way they wander away their literal meanings when they become part of established idioms or figures of speech. If I say that I’m going to “take the bull by the horns,” you just have to accept that English-speakers have agreed that the phrase means “to confront a problem directly,” even though grabbing a bull by the horns in real life would probably produce more problems than it solved. There’s also the question you mention, of why certain words seem to “go with” others (such as “stem” and “tide”), when perfectly nice synonyms of one of them (“staunch” or “stanch”) sound odd and even wrong.

I used the forms “stanch” and “staunch” above because they are actually the same word, drawn from the Old French “estanchier,” meaning to stop the flow of some liquid or stop up a leak. In modern use the verb is almost always spelled “stanch,” and the adjective “staunch.” That adjective “staunch” originally meant “watertight,” and has since acquired the meanings of “sticking to one’s principles” (“Bob was a staunch defender of free speech”) or “strong, determined.”

“Stem” as a verb meaning “to stop” is unrelated to the noun “stem” as in “stem of a flower,” which comes from the same Germanic roots meaning “upright” that gave us the verb “to stand.” The verb “to stem,” on the other hand, comes from the Old Norse “stemma,” based on a Germanic root meaning “stop” which also produced “stammer” and “stumble.”

The verbs “to stem” and “to stanch” both first appeared in the 14th century, and both initially meant to stop the flow of some liquid or, figuratively, something else that was ongoing (“They were able to stem the proceedings of the Crown when they pleased,” 1713). Both were also used specifically in reference to stopping the flow of blood from a wound, etc. (“So that the bleeding wound should be stemmed and bound up,” 1817). So why is “stanch” now so associated with blood, and “stem” with water?

The answer seems to be simply the precedent set by early users of the two words. As of about 1400, “stanch” was the word of choice to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To stop the flow of (blood or other issue from the body); to stop the flow of blood from (a wound).” It was used in other senses, but most of those are now obsolete, and for most people “stanch” conjures up either literal blood or the loss of something nearly as important (“Petrobras plans to cut costs … to stanch the impact of falling output and rising debt,” Chicago Tribune, 12/19/12). “Stem,” on the other hand, has always been more broadly used to mean simply “decrease” or “stop” (“What can be done to stem gun violence?” San Francisco Chronicle).

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