Thursday, June 22, 2017

Language of Confusion: Full Stop

And now, to complete our sorta trilogy on speed related etymology, here’s stop words.

Stop showed up as a noun in the late fourteenth century (where it meant a plug before stopping in general) and as a verb sometime before that. It comes from the Old English stoppian, stop or close, which is a West Germanic word that’s popped up in other Germanic languages. As for before that, it might be from the Vulgar Latin stuppare (to stop or stuff with tow) and classical Latin stupa, tow. Um, that’s tow like rope fiber. No, I had never heard that before either. Nor is it related to the other kind of two.

Stall has kind of a funny history. It showed up in the fifteenth century, coming from the Old English steall, a place to catch fish or an animal stall or the Old French estale. Steall comes from the Proto Germanic stal and Proto Indo European stel-, to put or stand. The funny part’s coming up, I swear. See, it’s in the way stall evolved in English. In the late sixteenth century it became to distract someone so a pickpocket could steal from them (like a decoy), and then later in the nineteenth century that evolved into a story to avoid doing something, like stalling someone. Come on! That’s funny!

Break, which I alluded to last week, showed up as a noun in the fourteenth century and a verb sometime before that. It comes from the Old English brecan, to separate into two or more pieces, as well as things like shatter, destroy, and smash. It comes from the Proto Germanic brekan and Proto Indo European bhreg-, to break. Of course, the break we’re looking at is supposed to be the one that means resting. Well, that definition didn’t show up until 1861, meant an interval between lessons at school. So…school gave us breaks. Was it worth it? No. Definitely not.

Halt had several definitions over the years. The stop version didn’t show up until the late sixteenth century, and weirdly enough it doesn’t seem to be related to the two other versions of the world, which means lame or to limp (ever heard someone having a halting gait? That’s where it’s from). Stop halt comes from the French halte, halt, which then came from the Old High German halten, to hold. The origin word for hold. And it’s definitely not related to the other halt, which has a totally different history. What the hell.

Stay is another one with a lot of meanings that we don’t use anymore that may or may not be related. There was one that was a support or brace, which is related to another one that is a rope on a ship’s mast, both of which come from the Proto Germanic stagaz and Proto Indo European stak-. There’s also another one that’s more relevant to the subject this week, showing up in the mid fifteenth century from the Old French estai-/estare, to stay or sand. It comes from the classical Latin stare, to stand, and before that the Proto Indo European sta-, stand or make firm. Which might be related to stak. They aren’t sure, but it would make sense considering they both have stand definitions.

TL;DR: What the hell stop words. I had hoped you would make sense. You disappoint me.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. You'd think there might be some correlation, wouldn't you? But no… I like the slightly criminal history to 'stall'.

  2. I wonder how many other words came to us through criminal activities.


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