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An etymological stinkpo(s)t

Most of what I am going to say in this blog post can be found elsewhere, that is, in any good dictionary and partly online, but the conclusion will be, or so I hope, not entirely trivial. Besides, not everybody has access to my published database and a collection of etymological dictionaries in nine languages that grace the walls of my study, so that after all, the effort may be worth the trouble.

Today’s subject is the origin of the verb stink. Some people feel confused about the difference between stank and stunk. Let them consult a grammar book and be informed. The sequence is the same as in sink—sank—sunk and ring—rang—rung. Stink has always been a strong verb, that is, a verb, whose infinitive, past tense, and past participle display ablaut, or, to avoid this learned term, a series of alternating vowels. Unlike the illegitimate and ever-controversial sneaksnuck, stink has always been a strong verb. Always means that its conjugation has not changed since the Old English period and that its cognates in other related languages display the same system of alternating vowels. The oldest Germanic language whose long narrative texts have come down to us is Gothic. It was recorded in the fourth century, and a word like English stink and Dutch/German stinken surfaced in it several times. Surprisingly, it meant “to clash, to do battle,” and when it appeared with a prefix, the senses were “to stumble” and “to strike against,” while a related noun glossed Greek “obstacle” (the Gothic New Testament was translated from Greek). No reference to a bad smell!

A prototypical German stinker.
Illustration from Vinkhuijzen collection of military uniforms, via NYPL, public domain

If we look at the senses of all the attested Old Germanic cognates of stink, we will find “strike against; bounce, leap,” and the like, all of them referring to collision, sudden movement, running, and (not to be missed!) sprinkling. Apparently, stink progressed from “attacking” to “attacking with water, besprinkling” and “an attack of the air on the nostrils,” a tremendous change. In later texts, stincan (elsewhere spelled stinkan) has been recorded as meaning “to emit a smell; sniff” (a neutral odor) and (surprisingly) “to smell sweetly.” Today, its sweet odor is gone. The process known as the deterioration of meaning is common in the history of words. An anthologized example is silly, which has gone all the way from “happy” (compare German selig “blissful; blessed; happy”) to “foolish.” Those who have read the post for last week may remember that fond developed in the opposite direction: from “foolish” to “foolishly affectionate” and “loving” (predictably, this process is referred to as the amelioration of meaning). The related English noun stench also meant “odor” but changed it to “offensive smell” quite early.

Students always wonder why such changes are possible. The answer may sound disconcerting: “Because so many people speak a language.” Teachers, editors, and manuals keep reminding us that we misuse a certain word or grammatical form, but most people don’t care and persist in their folly. Once the smart educators die out, only those who ignore the strictures remain, “irregardless,” as it were, of the ire of their ancestors. Such is the mechanism of all language change. Obviously, in a search for the distant origin of stink, we should concentrate on such senses as “strike against, collide” and disregard the later connotations, even though they are the only ones we now remember.

Though the meaning of the recorded cognates is most important, in this case, we have no way of going beyond “spring, burst, run, flee, collide.” The story began with reference to a forceful movement. Such a verb, we suspect, must have been sound-imitative or sound-symbolic, but nothing in the complex st-nk or st-k alludes to any noise: br, tr, kr, and their likes are a different matter. Perhaps for this reason, all authorities agree that the etymology of stink is unknown. Naturally, the hypotheses on the verb’s origin have not been wanting. Most of them, as usual, concentrate on attempts to find related forms (cognates) of stink outside Germanic. And indeed, a few similar-sounding words in Baltic, Celtic, Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek are not too few.

From an etymological point of view, snoring is fine, while stinking is not.
Photo by Nicky Wilkes, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

They all begin with st– (or t-, because one should reckon with the elusive prefix, known as s-mobile), may or may not have n in the middle, and display a variety of senses. Compare, for example, instigate and distinguish (in English, ultimately, from Latin). The possibility of the Germanic root of stink without initial s- and without n in the middle has been suggested more than once, but no promising conclusions have been reached along those lines. A few similar-sounding Sanskrit words for “pillar; stumble” and “trample, tread” exist. They too have been rejected as possible cognates. However, if the ancient ancestor of stink really meant “to drive a post into the ground,” we may at least conclude that the senses“collide; strike” were derived from some labor activity. This conclusion would be a step forward in our semantic reconstruction but not explain what made such a “quiet” sound group as st-k appear in the verb referring to a noisy activity. Crush, crash, creak, croak, cry, along with bump, thump, stamp, stomp; hiss, and hush live up to their sense, while stink does not.

Therefore, the origin of stink is doomed to remain a riddle, and we arrive at a somewhat unexpected conclusion. References to sound imitation (onomatopoeia) and sound symbolism (in my blog posts and in many others) may seem like cheap tricks on the part of language historians, but it is not. Enormous literature exists on the emergence of language. We may perhaps be allowed to ask a less general question: “Was language iconic in its inception?” Translated into easy terms: “Was there an indissoluble tie between sound and meaning in the first words?” There probably was, but the “first words” are millennia away from us, and we can only hope that impulses which motivated our distant ancestors can still be reconstructed and are the same today as “once upon a time.” In the Semitic languages, the sought-for link seems to be more apparent than in Indo-European, but in Indo-European, it is also evident. When we fail to discover that primordial tie or show that our word is a loan from another language, we stop, for there is a blind wall (more properly, a deaf wall) in front of us.

Silly but happy.
Via Pxfuel, public domain

Our conclusion about stink is less than moderate, and I have chosen this word to show (not for the first time!) the meaning of the ever-recurring verdict: “Origin unknown.” Indeed, we have an Old Germanic verb that meant something like “to push forcefully forward; thrust; collide.” It probably sounded approximately like stinkwan. Similar words still exist in other Indo-European languages, but it remains unclear whether this similarity is a case of kinship or a coincidence. Even if their kinship happens to be recognized, our gain will be of minimal value, because the wall will grow in size but not become lower or easier to penetrate. The forceful sense of the verb does not correspond to its quiet sound.

You probably expect some self-evaluation of this post. I know what you want to say and agree. Yes, it stinks. But not every day is Sunday, or, to put it differently, an etymologist’s life is not beer and skittles.

Featured image via Pxfuel, public domain

Recent Comments

  1. Nigel Middlemiss

    I don’t think you’ve quite got this one right. “Stink” involves the body-imitative gesture of compressing the nostrils on the sound “nk” as if to exclude a foul smell. It is similar to compressing the lips for the phrase “I kept mum” to emulate not speaking.

  2. A. Kumar

    Fantastic post, thank you. I am working on an etymological dictionary of Konkani and I agree that “an etymologist’s life is not beer and skittles” – or, to use an Indian equivalent, “chai and cricket”!

  3. Nigel Middlemiss

    I’m not at all sure you’ve got the whole story about “stink”. You have missed the body-imitative dimension. For example when you say “I kept mum”, the word mum imitates the act of pressing your lips together to say nothing. In the same way here when you say the ‘nk” part you compress your nostrils to exclude the foul smell.

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