“St-” Words that Stand Firm or Push Hard

August 16, 2021

Last Wall Standing, by Lloyd Bishop

In a recent post, we explored connections between some words beginning with “scr-.”  Finding connections between vocabulary words with similar sounds and spellings can help you remember them longer. This time, let’s examine some “st-” words with related ancient roots.

There are thousands of words beginning with “st-,” but this short initial list I made — stand, stable, static, steady, staunch, stem — got me wondering: how related are they? Pondering their meanings, would you agree these words suggest an upright position, vertical state, constant condition, or firmness?

Sure enough, their etymologies reveal an ancestral root meaning “to stand, be firm, make firm.” Adjective static (“unchanging, remaining in a constant state”) looks and sounds like its ancient Greek parent statikos, which meant “causing to stand, skilled in weighing/balancing.” It turns out that static is closely related to lots of other st- words, like stay, state, status, station, and stationary.

In fact, the Latin word for state was status, meaning “a station, position, place; way of standing, posture; order, arrangement, condition,” according to Etymonline (see source note below). These meanings are still associated with English status and state. In 14th-century English, state came to mean “political organization of a country, government,” based on Latin phrases with meanings like “condition of the country.”

Steady became common only about 500 years ago as an updated version of steadfast, referring to things firmly fixed in place. Over time, both words increasingly referred to firmness of mind, constancy of character, and constant rate of progress. The earlier word stead (“place, position; standing, firmness, stability”) survives today, but mainly in the adverb instead (“in place of”).

Like steadfast, staunch often means “loyal” when referring to friends, allies, and supporters, but its evolution from the “stand/firm” roots took a roundabout route through Old French in a word meaning “watertight” — that is, water-stopping, which is what the closely related verb stanch (notice: no letter “u” in spelling) still means: “stop the flow of a fluid (like blood).” 

So if you have a staunch ally or friend, then your alliance is watertight and your friendship is as strong as steel (yet another word based on those ancient “stand/firm” roots, thanks to its iron-surpassing toughness and durability: ability to stand up to or withstand anything).

A stem is the upright support for a plant, a wine glass, and similar structures, and it used to refer to more massive vertical supports like tree trunks. Interestingly, a cousin of our ancestral “stand/firm” root, meaning both “post, stem” and “to support, place firmly on” and also led to step (“to place one foot in front of the other,” or “a support or resting place for the foot”) and staff (“a thick wooden rod, support pole, walking stick”). A staff might be used ceremonially or as a symbol of authority; such use by military commanders led to the meaning “group of officers,” and (later) “group of employees.” 

Different but apparently related ancestral roots meaning “to stick, pierce, push” and “sharp, pointed” inspired words like stick, steep, steeple, and stimulate. This sense of pointed pushing extended to notions of “bumping, butting, knocking, beating, blocking, closing off,” and led to words like stop and stuff, which relate to ending movement, blocking flow, or plugging up.

In the days of knights in armor, stuff was the padding stuffed under a warrior’s metal garments for comfort in combat! This meaning arose from a French word for “quilted material, furniture, provisions,” according to Etymonline. That wide variety of materials and equipment broadened into the “all sorts of things” meaning of stuff today.

Finally, the ancient “push/knock/beat” roots inspired both study, via Lain studere — “to be diligent” — in the sense of pushing oneself forward, toward greater understanding, and stupid, from Latin words meaning “struck senseless” and “stunned, amazed, confounded.” So students beware: too much studying can be stupefying!

* * * * *

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “stand,” “state,” “stead,” “staunch,” “steel,” “step,” “staff,” “stuff,” “study,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “step,” “stop,” and related entries).

A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 13, 2021.


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