stanch, staunch

Many a stanch defender of the language will try to staunch the flow of misspellings.

Wait. No. Many a staunch defender of the language will try to stanch the flow of misspellings.


It’s like a gauntlet/gantlet and pour over/pore over thing. Every lexical fussbudget knows that. The sight of the wrong one is like aluminum foil touching a filling.

And if you feel that way about staunch and stanch, you… are not going to like what you find if you look in, say, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary or, um, the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary, or… let’s see, what else is on my shelf here…

Now, yes, it’s true, for the adjective – as in a staunch defender – the spelling with the u is the more usual one, and the spelling without the u is the alternate, whereas for the verb – as in stanch the flow – as well as for the related noun (yes, there is one; it means ‘dam’ or a similar waterway impedance) the spelling without the u is the more usual and the spelling with it is the alternate. But “alternate” does not mean “wrong.”

So how did it get to be this way? Is this like one of those cleave and cleave things, where two different words happened to converge on a spelling? Or is it one of those isle and island things, where one word was mistakenly thought to be related to the other and got a letter added where it doesn’t belong (in case you’re wondering, isle is the one that has a historical s and island is the one where the s was mistakenly stuffed in)? Nope. It’s one of those things more like person and parson – or, for that matter, more like to and too. They come from the same thing, but the spelling has diverged with the usage. Only in the case of sta(u)nch, the split is still underway. It’s like seeing an amoeba in the middle of, you know, doing it. Or like seeing a stream at a fork. Though, really, it seems to have stagnated: both spellings have stood for both senses for centuries.

In the case of stanch and staunch, the source is words having to do with stopping the flow of water, damming up, et cetera, and, in adjectival form, being impervious to leaking – which is the same dam thing. The Old French form was estanche for the adjective and estanchier for the verb. Its ultimate Latin source might be sto ‘I stand’ or stagnum ‘pool’ – it’s not quite clear. But we do know that the related Italian word is stancare (verb) and stanco (adjective), both translating as ‘weary’. Which may seem suitable if you are wearying of all this lexical hair-splitting.

But if you are the sort who likes to make and maintain small distinctions – one spelling for the verb (and noun) and one for the adjective – well, this one is for you. Specifically, adjective is for u. But remember one thing: though Americans can get away with saying the stanch spelling to rhyme with ranch, you will always be safe (except from people who don’t know any better) saying either spelling to rhyme with haunch.

Although, really, you’ll be safest just avoiding the whole issue and using words like dam or stop up or stalwart.

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