Tag Archives: stanch

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.

stench, stanch, staunch

“Oyyy,” I said, stepping into Domus Logogustationis, local headquarters of the Order of Logogustation. “What’s the stench?”

“There’s been a little backup,” Maury said, gesturing towards the lavatory. “We’ve had to call for backup.”

A tall, angular fellow in overalls came out of the washroom. Seeing me, he took off a glove and came over, extending a hand in greeting. “Hi. I am Stan.”

“Stan,” I said, shaking hands with him. “From Stanley, taken from Old English for ‘stone meadow’.”

“No, in fact,” Stan said. “Taken from Zdenek. I am from the Czech Republic originally.”

Zdenek,” Maury said. “From Latin Sidonius, ‘person from Sidonia.'”

“Yes,” Stan said. “I anglicized. I began to tire of people mispronouncing my name. All these people who think they can’t say ‘zd’. Even though English is full of ‘st’.”

“Well, Zdenek,” I said, “are you able to stanch the stench?”

He patted me on the shoulder amicably. “I am your staunch ally. But stanching is not the solution, it is the problem. The pipe is blocked.”

“And the solutions in it are not draining,” Maury quipped. “They are stagnant.”

“In fact. But this is not something I can fix with a snake. I will need to bypass it with another pipe.”

“A stent,” I said before I could stop myself.

“That’s the extent of it,” Stan said. “I will affix it to a stanchion for support.”

“That’s quite the stunt,” I said.

“Well,” Stan said, smiling indulgently, “it is just because the pipe has been stunted. But let me finish the work now so that my stint here does not go too long.” He turned and went back to the washroom.

“Interesting,” Maury said, “the different effect of affricate versus stop at the ends of these words. Stench and stink come from the same Old English word, but stink seems more acute and stench perhaps more thoroughgoing.”

“I’m sure drench and quench and such words have some effect on stench,” I said. “Plus the wetness of the fricative portion at the end.”

“The vowels, too,” Maury noted. “The vowel movement between stench and stink is rather like that between stauunch and stanch, which are even more closely related, being actually different forms of the same word: verb ‘stop the flow of water’, adjective ‘impervious to the flow of water’, both from Old French and possibly ultimately related to the Latin etymon of stagnant.”

“The velar /k/ stop is stickier and, I would say, denser in feeling than the lighter alveolar /t/ stop,” I said. “Stint – ‘cease action’ or ‘a limited period of action’; stunt – ‘stop the development of’ or ‘athletic display’; stent – ‘temporary medical bypass or drainage tube’. None of them as strong in the sound as stink, stank, stunk.”

“Two from Old English and one eponym,” Maury said, reflecting on stint, stunt, and stent. “I’m not sure where the family name of the good dentist Dr. Charles Stent came from.”

An encouraging sound of gurgling came from the washroom. Maury and I went over to look. Stan appeared to have solved the problem. “That was quick,” I said.

“Well, gentlemen,” Stan said, arising, “when you are well trained, the draining takes over. So I have given you express service. But I hope,” he added, taking off his gloves and reaching for his invoice pad, “when you write a cheque to Stan the Czech you will be unstinting.”