Stubbed, stove and just plain busted
Dear Word Detective: I recently stubbed my toe on my kitchen table. The thought occurred to me — why do we say, “I stubbed my toe”? We don’t “stub” other body parts, not our ankles, knees, chin, or elbows. You smack, hit, whack, bang up, etc., but not “stub” them. I’ve tried researching this on my own and I found nothing. The meaning of the word “stubbed” comes from tree stumps in a field, but I can’t follow it from there. Anything you could find out would be great! — Lainey.
Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve not only stubbed but actually broken most of the toes on both my feet over the years. I’m not sure why we don’t speak of “stubbing” one’s fingers, however. I was using a shovel last year and managed to severely “stub” my little finger when my grip slipped. [Update: It was broken. Duh. Now it has a funny kink in it.]
The verb “to stub” comes from the noun “stub,” which, as you found, originally meant “the stump of a tree” and comes from the Old English “stybb.” Over the centuries since then, “stub” has acquired a variety of meanings, most involving something shortened, stunted, or cut off, frequently the remaining portion of something (as in the “stub” of a movie ticket). As a verb, “to stub,” which first appeared in the 15th century, initially meant “to dig up by the roots” (i.e., to remove a tree stump, etc.), but soon developed a range of related meanings centered on the general idea of either “shortening” or “crushing” various things.
In the late 17th century, however, people began to speak of “stubbing” a horse, injuring its legs, by allowing it to trip over or jam its hooves on “stubs,” tree stumps. By the mid-19th century, this use of “stub” had carried over to humans, and meant specifically to strike one’s toe against an obstruction while walking or running. While this verb “to stub” does refer back to the noun “stub” in the “tree stump” sense, it also invokes the sense of “shortening” one’s toe by jamming it lengthwise into an object. It’s that “lengthwise” smashing that distinguishes “stubbing” one’s toe from simply “banging” one’s elbow or knee. The same verb “to stub” is used to mean extinguishing a cigarette or cigar by crushing the lighted end into a solid surface.
Incidentally, the verb used to describe “stubbing” one’s finger the way I did is, for some strange reason, “to stave,” a verb which originally meant to destroy a cask or barrel by smashing the “staves” of which it was constructed. “Stave” is actually the archaic plural of “staff” in the sense of “rod or stick,” and when we speak of “staving off an attack,” it originally meant to use sticks as weapons. A ship which has had a hole punched in its hull (e.g., by a rock) is said to be “stove” (the archaic past tense of “stave”) or “stove in,” and a finger which has be damaged by being jammed with great force lengthwise into an object is said to be “stove.” The term “stove in” has also been used, since the early 20th century, as slang for anything that is worn out or run down, including people (“Mr. Avery’ll be in bed for a week — he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that,” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960).