Str- Words that Stretch and Strain

October 28, 2021

Straight into the Sun, by Lloyd Bishop

In an earlier article posted here, we explored some words that start with “st-.” Let’s add the letter “r” to that initial consonant cluster (two or more consonants that begin a word) and see what connections we can find among some “str-” words.

The first “str-” words that occurred to me were strength, strong, strain, strive, and stress. These all seem to be about effort, exertion, force, and tension, don’t they?  

Strength and strong evolved from similarly spelled equivalents in early northern European languages springing from an ancestral root meaning “tight, narrow; pull tight, twist.” String also comes from this root — not surprising, since strings are made of narrow fibers, often twisted together, and pulled tightly for weaving, measuring, shooting arrows (from bows), making music, and many other tasks. A more murderous variant meaning “twist, choke, suffocate” evolved into the verb strangle.

The related Latin verb stringere, meaning “to draw tight, bind tightly, compress,” led to strain, stress, and strict, expressing various senses of tightness, pressure, and narrowness. For about 700 years, strain has been consistent in its definitions: “to tighten,” “to exert or overexert,” “to press through a filter (i.e., a strainer),” and “carry something too far, force an interpretation of,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).  

Stress, too, has maintained its 14th-century meanings of “hardship, adversity, force, pressure,” adding “physical strain on an object” in the 15th century, and “psychological strain” in the mid-20th century.  

Back to our original “pull tight” root: another likely descendant is stretch, via early northern European words for “draw out, extend, reach, spread out.” Interestingly, an Old English past participle of stretch gave rise to straight, which retains its original sense of “stretched; not crooked, uneven, or bent; direct.”

When cities are planned, it’s no surprise the streets are laid out straight. The etymology of street reveals an ancestral root meaning “stretch/extend,” as well as Latin roots meaning “lay down, spread out; cover, pave.”

Latin extra, meaning “outside of, beyond,” survives intact in many English words, and its “-xtra” element contains a “-stra” syllable, even as we pronounce it today: EK-stra. So it’s logical that some “str-” words come from Latin versions featuring extra. One example is strange: outside of the normal, beyond the familiar. 

Let’s end on a word with both gentle and violent associations. The Old English equivalent of our verb stroke expressed the modern meaning: “lightly rub, gently pass the hand over.” Its ancestral root meant “stroke/rub/press,” but that pressaspect extended to a harsher sense of striking, which eventually led to our verb strike (“hit, deal a blow to; attack”) and noun stroke (“the act of striking” and “sudden attack on brain function if blood flow stops,” among other meanings). 

So if you find paradoxical words intriguing, consider that stroking (“caressing”) the victim of a stroke (“partial brain shutdown”) is not only soothing but may even help the patient recover and evade the stroke (“strike, attack; fatal blow”) of death.

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “strength,” “stretch,” “*stere-,” “strain,” “straight,” “street,” “stroll,” “stray,” “stroke,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “street,” “stroll,” “stroke,” and related entries); Google dictionary (google.com: “stroke”).

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A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on October 21, 2021.

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