The mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, recently made the news pretty much everywhere by admitting that he had smoked crack, but excusing it as having been “in one of my drunken stupors.”
The question that’s on everyone’s mind now is, of course, “Is stupor related to stupid or is that just a sweet coincidence?” An additional question that is apparently on the minds of many Canadians is “Shouldn’t that be stupour in Canada?”
Yes and no. I mean yes, it’s related, and no, it shouldn’t be stupour. The etymology answers both questions. The words stupor and stupid originate in the Latin verb stupere, ‘be stunned or benumbed’. (Incidentally, in some parts of Canada, and perhaps elsewhere, stunned is also a common colloqual word for ‘stupid’.) That became, still in Latin, the past tense form stupidus ‘stunned, numb’ and the noun stupor. So stupid is to stupor as torpid is to torpor (and, originally, horrid was to horror). And I suppose you could say stupid is as stupor does…
You will see that the noun has not changed spelling from its Latin original. Some other words that have come from Latin -or words (such as color) have passed through a French influence long ago and come out with an added u (subsequently lost in American English). But stupor never did. Well, not never – up to the 1600s (it was borrowed in the 1300s) it was sometimes also spelled stupour. But that was finally dropped. Perhaps it seemed stupid.
Good word, stupid. It’s well formed for describing and decrying a disdained mental insufficiency. It starts with a combination that pretty much spits, [st], and has an additional puff of disdain in the middle with [p], then ends with the [ɪd] that also starts idiot. The stressed vowel adds something extra special: your choice between the pinched, almost hissing [ju] diphthong (which, in [stju], practically forces the face into a moue of disdain as though sniffing a turd) and the stripped-down (Canadian-style) plain [u], which, aside from sounding duller, is itself disdained as stupid by snobs with palatalized pronunciations.
Stupor has most of the same characteristics (plus – in a British accent – the sound of a Buddhist monument (stupa) around which one may circumambulate), but it is not usually used for insults. Not that it is used with approbation; a stupor is not a thing one generally wants to be in. And yet somehow it is a thing people get themselves into. And usually the same way: you drink yourself into a stupor; you are then in a drunken stupor. Most modern uses of stupor refer to being stupid drunk. You know, like someone you see stopped and stooped over on a stoop, unable to take another step, stumbling and mumbling, perhaps trying to circumambulate their residence in search of a door (or their forsaken sobriety). The language has many, many terms for various states of inebriation, and this expresses one of the most severe.
How severe? Severe enough that you might get your letters mixed up, perhaps, and go looking for a p for support (or vice versa), or drop an r and get upsot, or, more likely, become like Proust and find yourself À la recherche du temps perdu – not, as the English title of the book would suggest, remembering things past (as if!), but actually in search of lost time. Ha, good luck with that. If you’re anything like Rob Ford, you’ll discover what you did when someone releases a video of it.