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“Stunning” success is still round the corner

By Anatoly Liberman


There are many ways to be surprised (confounded, dumbfounded, stupefied, flummoxed, and even flabbergasted). While recently discussing this topic, I half-promised to return to it, and, although the origin of astonish ~ astound ~ stun is less exciting than that of amaze, it is perhaps worthy of a brief note.

373px-François_Junius,_after_Anthony_van_DijckI sometimes refer to Franciscus Junius the junior (1591-1677), who even in the constellation of his great contemporaries shines with special brightness. His posthumous etymological dictionary of English, written (fortunately) in not too florid Latin, has been one of my favorite sources for more than twenty years. Junius lived before the discovery of sound correspondences (without which etymology is unprofitable guesswork), but he knew so much and his intuition was so great that his opinion should never be dismissed without giving it some consideration. However, in this case he was wrong. He thought that astonish has the root stone. Fear, sorrow, and admiration “petrify” people, he said, and cited Latin lapidescere “turn into stone.” Despite the Latin parallel, the metaphor at the foundation of astonish is different. The English verb goes back, via French, to Latin extonare, in which tonare means “to thunder.” To be astonished is, from an etymological point of view, to be “thunderstruck.”

The complications in this seemingly neat story are of a phonetic nature. From extonare Old French had the verb estoner, with the past participle estoné, which in Anglo-French became astoné. Astoné yielded Middle Engl. astounen, and quite late (no examples in the OED predate 1600) we find the verb astound. There is some disagreement about how final d appeared in it. According to the traditional view, this consonant was excrescent, that is, added “for no etymological reason.” (Compare t in amongst, whilst, and the substandard but very common form acrosst; the last name Bryant, from Brian, grew -t possibly on analogy of words like pliant, defiant, and vibrant.) Words with such superfluous -d after n are common. Among them we find sound (the root of Latin sonus, as in Engl. assonance and sonata, ends in -n), expound (Latin exponere), and bound, as in the ship is bound for London (from boun “ready,” here possibly under the influence of bind—bound, as though the ship had a binding obligation to go to London). There was also the adjective astound, and the OED (in an entry published in 1885) considered the possibility that it was taken for the past participle of the nonexistent verb; allegedly, usage could convert astounen into astound. Professor Diensberg, a leading specialist in the history of French words in English, rejected this reconstruction unconditionally. We may afford the luxury of staying above the fray, for our goal is to discover the ultimate origin of astound rather than its subsequent history.

Now, the participle astoné (see it above) belongs with the infinitive astone. Its English variants astonie and astony have also been recorded.  They occur even in some nineteenth-century dictionaries, though at that time no one used them. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a fashion for verbs ending in -ish set in. The Latin cluster -isk (with a long vowel) developed on English soil into -iss and -ish. Engl. -ish seems to go back to -ish directly, bypassing -iss (here I again follow Diensberg). Abolish, languish, nourish, and publish, among others, share the suffix -ish with astonish. Consequently, astonish and astound are etymological doublets, or cousins, if you wish. But family ties have never guaranteed tender feelings, and words behave in many respects like people: they fight for the sphere of domination and inheritance. Absolute synonyms do not exist. As a result, astound increased its force, outstripped astonish, and came to designate utter amazement rather than surprise, almost the state of being shocked.

Not too rarely an unstressed prefix consisting of a single vowel has been lost in English. James A. H. Murray called such forms aphetic (this adjective is his coinage). For instance, bide, cute, and squire are the aphetic variants of abide, acute, and esquire. Likewise, stun is, according to the OED, the aphetic variant of the verb astone, and indeed it means more or less the same as astound, except that one is often stunned with a blow. The difference in vowels and the absence of final -d in stun prevent modern speakers from connecting the two words. That might be the end of the story (a happy end: almost everything is clear), but for the existence of the Old English verb stunian “crash, resound, roar; impinge, dash.” Not improbably, the two sets, separated by a semicolon in my gloss, are not different senses of the same verb but homonyms. Stunian, regardless of whether it is one verb or two, has a respectable relative in German, namely staunen “to be astonished or amazed”; more common is the prefixed transitive verb erstaunen “astonish, amaze.”

A stunned cat
A stunned cat

Old Icelandic had stynja “to groan,” with unmistakable cognates elsewhere: German stönen (from stenen), Russian stonat’ ~ stenat’ (stress on the second syllable), etc. The basic meaning of all such verbs seems to have been “making a noise.” Old Engl. stunian “impinge, dash” is related to the Old English noun gestun ~ gestund (already then with excrescent d!) “noise, crash” and stund “a strong effort.” Etymologists offer conflicting hypotheses on the origin of staunen, but most often one finds the statement that staunen came to Standard German from Swiss French, where it goes back to extonare. With extonare we return to familiar grounds. But Old Engl. stunian remains unexplained. Skeat derived stun from stunian and bypassed astound. He never gave up his etymology, which appeared early in his dictionary, and it looks good, even though stun emerged in our texts only in a thirteenth-century poem written by a native of northern England.

Regrettably, even our best dictionaries are wholly or partly dogmatic and are apt to shed words of wisdom, without alerting the user of conflicting opinions and unsolved riddles. The aphetic origin of stun is now a commonplace, and it is a pity that The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Wyld, and Weekley, our most reliable sources, say nothing about the troublesome verb stunian. In the last editions of his full and concise dictionary, Skeat traced stun to stunian, mentioned the verbs for “groan” as cognates, and did not even mention astound. Such is the state of the art. All this is sad but hardly astounding.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology posts via email or RSS.

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Image credit: (1) François Junius. 1698. Michael Burghers after Anthony van Dijck. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Cute young cat looking up in a total surprise. © Fotosmurf03 via iStockphoto.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie Morgan

    …and leaving us all quite gobsmacked to boot.

  2. John Peter Maher

    “A stunning hat” would be said by women and effeminate men. Macho men would eschew same, but not “a stunning redhead”. Let the Political Correct frown. The politically honest will not be stunned by the observation.

  3. [...] 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an [...]

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