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Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the word “stimulus”.

I wonder if I am the only one who finds it humorous that the word stimulus is derived from a Latin word that means ‘a goad for driving cattle’ (at least that’s what Skinner’s Origin of Medical Terms says). The OED doesn’t seem to fully agree with Skinner on this, stating in their etymology ‘Originally a mod.L. use (in medical books) of L. stimulus goad, of doubtful origin; perh. f. root *sti– in stilus’.

Is it possible that Henry Alan Skinner foresaw the future use of stimulus as a word that would be tied to our current massive financial package, and thought to include the bit about ‘driving cattle’ in his etymology as a way of expressing his contempt for either the members of congress who will vote for the bill, the bankers who are crying out for its passage, or the public who doesn’t fully understand it (but who incessantly talk about it anyway)? I don’t know what Skinner’s political leanings were, but this seems unlikely, as his book was published in 1949.

No matter what its roots are, no one can deny that the word is really enjoying its time in the limelight. One can hardly begrudge it, as stimulus has not has the most glamorous career in our language. It entered our language in 1684, and its various senses over the centuries have mainly been of the medical or scientific variety – good workmanlike words, but nothing that anyone would get too excited about. It is not the oldest of its family in English – stimulator and stimulatrix, for instance, both appeared some 70 years earlier.

But whether it has a noble pedigree or an exciting definition is beside the point; we are privy to watching a word shift and take on new meaning before our eyes, and that should be interesting enough. For instance, there is only one instance of the phrase stimulus package in the entire OED (it comes, delightfully enough, in the citations for the entry on misgauge). But the New York Times has used this particular phrase over 400 times in the past three months, and I am certain that it is not going away any time soon.

Stimulus will unintentionally be used incorrectly by those people (myself included) who don’t understand exactly what all the billions and trillions of dollars are supposed to do. It will intentionally be used incorrectly by those who want to influence the political fate of the stimulus package. It will be used in ways that are relatively foreign to how it has been used before, in ways that will only be judged correct or incorrect in the future. And possibly some of these new usages and meanings will stick to it, and will be documented in dictionaries to come.

Even if the word is, as the OED claims, of doubtful origin, I am sure that its parents are very proud.

Recent Comments

  1. Ben Zimmer

    “Stimulus package” now often gets shortened to “stim package” by journalists and bloggers. Familiarity breeds compression.

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