Out, damn story!

Dear Word Detective: I have been having an argument recently with my fiancé about the origin of the word “stain.” He says that is comes from “ye olde Englishe tymes,” when someone would say, “That wine is going to stay in your shirt!” Of course, meaning that “stay-in” became “stain.” This sounds convincing, but I was there when he made it up on the spot. However, he is so charmingly convincing that everyone believes him! I am utterly convinced that that is not the origin of the word, seeing as he came up with all of it himself, but I can’t find the origins anywhere. He promises to stop telling people this when I prove him wrong, so could you please help me stop him? It would help make the world a less misinformed place. — Roxanne.

A less misinformed place, eh? Good luck with that. Speaking of information (or the lack thereof), I’ll see your fiancé’s spurious invention and raise you something truly disturbing. I recently discovered that many people around here, especially those under 30 or so, have no idea which way North is. Yes, North, the direction. Seriously. But they seem content in this state, and I suppose that if they ever decide to wander off they’ll be able to ask their cell phones how to get home. Doesn’t augur well for the post-apocalyptic society, though.

At the risk of encouraging your fiancé’s inventions, I should note that his idea about the origin of “stain” is not, actually, completely crazy. English forms words in many ways, and sometimes it does so by taking two or more existing words and smooshing them (the technical term) together. Folks who have been paying attention may remember that we recently wrestled with the assertion by Dan Brown (of “Da Vinci Code” fame) that our modern word “atone” was born of such a smooshing of the phrase “at one,” meaning a state of unity with the universe, stamp collecting, or whatever floats your personal boat. That’s essentially true, although our modern “atone” carries the sense of expiating a wrong done, rather than just feeling groovy about the universe.

“Stain,” however, was not created through such smooshing (love that word), although its story is not without some serious weirdness. Our modern word “stain” first appeared in English in the late 14th century, and appears to have developed from an aphetic, or cropped, form of the Old French “desteindre.” Oddly, however, that French word meant not to “stain” in our modern sense of “to dye” (as in staining wood) or “to blemish with color” (as in a stain on clothing), but nearly the opposite, “to remove the color from, to fade.” Consequently, “stain” in English was originally used to mean “to deprive of color.”

Just how “stain” came to mean “to alter appearance of something by adding color, either intentionally or by accident” is unclear. The “des” of that Old French root “desteindre” may have been interpreted as meaning not “un” (as it did) but “differently,” as if “stain” should mean “to change the color of something.” It’s also possible that the development of “stain” was influenced by the Old Norse verb “steina,” meaning “to paint.” It’s all a bit of a muddle, and nowhere near as satisfying as your swain’s story, but it does have the virtue of being true.

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