Memoirs of a runt.

Dear Word Detective: I cannot seem to find the relationship, if one does exist, between “stunt” and “stunted.” A “stunt” I think is an antic, a frivolous act, while “stunted” means arrested growth. Is it a case of different roots? — Bruce Bogin.

stunt08.pngHey, that’s a good question. I don’t know about you, but I spent my childhood hearing warnings about several thousand activities that might “stunt my growth.” Failure to eat my vegetables, staying up late, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking, watching too much TV, eating too much candy, not dressing warmly in winter, not getting plenty of sun in summer, playing in traffic, playing with matches, petting wild animals, tying my shoes insecurely, swimming within an hour of eating, and talking with my mouth full, could, and almost certainly would, stunt my growth. But I’m not sure those warnings had their intended effect. After seeing The Wizard of Oz, I remember thinking that those munchkins must be having a remarkable amount of fun.

As to whether “stunt” as a verb meaning “to hinder the normal growth or development” is related to “stunt” as a noun meaning “set your hair on fire to impress your friends,” the answer is “maybe, but, if so, only remotely.”

The first “stunt” to appear in English was an adjective, inherited from Old English and meaning “foolish or stupid,” derived from Germanic roots. This “stunt” also carried the sense of “short or abrupt” and “obstinate or rude,” and the overall sense seems to have been “something cut short or truncated,” whether intelligence or manners. The verb “to stunt” we use today to mean “keep short” is derived from this adjective, and actually first appeared, in the 16th century, with the now-obsolete meaning “to irritate” or “to bring to an abrupt stop,” as a rude person might cut off conversation. Almost all use of this verb “to stunt” today is in our familiar “retard growth” sense.

The “flashy feat” sort of “stunt” is a much more recent development, first appearing in the late 19th century in college slang use meaning “an act which is striking for the skill, strength, or the like, required to do it,” especially in an athletic competition. The sense of “stunt” expanded in the 20th century to include feats of daring in any field, especially if performed as an answer to a challenge.

The origin of this “stunt” is unknown, but one theory (which strikes me as very likely) is that it arose as a variant of “stump” as a verb. Today we usually use “stump” to mean “obstruct, frustrate” (“The problem stumped the police”), drawn from the obstacle posed by an old tree stump to a farmer plowing a field. But from the late 18th century on, “stump” was also schoolyard and college slang for “to challenge; to dare a person to do something” (“In some games … younger children are commanded, or older ones stumped or dared, to do dangerous things,” American Journal of Psychology, 1890).

Now, since “stunt” and “stump” both come from very old Germanic roots meaning “to truncate, cut short,” there may be a connection between the “feat” and “impede” senses of “stunt.” But today they are considered unrelated, except in the sense that a very stupid stunt has the potential to “stunt your growth” permanently.

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