Dear WD: While putting together a talk on stewardship for my church recently, I stumbled upon what I believe to be the etymology of the word “steward.” Its first syllable seems to derive from an Anglo-Saxon word that is represented in modern English by our word “sty,” as in “This bedroom looks like a pig sty.” Is this correct ? — Michael Murley.
That’s a very interesting question, and please bear with me as I take a somewhat oblique tack in answering it. I think that there must be, buried somewhere in the genetic stew of all human beings, a gene for rebelliousness. Something in all of us loves to see the mighty brought low. The possibility that a word (“steward”) denoting qualities of responsibility, probity, sobriety and good judgment might have its roots in a raucous, filthy pig sty piques our interest because it offers the same sort of thrill we get from seeing a pompous politician slip on a banana peel, whether real or figurative. I am not, by the way, even remotely related to Dick Morris.
I mention our collective fondness for this game of linguistic “gotcha” because you are not the first person to notice the amusing convergence of “steward” and “sty.” At first glance, the connection seems inarguable — “steward” comes from the Old English “stiweard,” which is a combination of “sti” or “stig,” meaning “sty,” and “weard,” meaning “keeper” or “ward.” Certainly seems to add up to “guy in charge of the pigsty,” doesn’t it? But the Oxford English Dictionary takes a rather stern tone in dismissing that notion: “…there is no ground for the assumption that ‘steward’ originally meant ‘keeper of the pig sties.’” Underlying the OED’s grumpy certainty is the fact that “stig” or “sti” also meant “hall” in Old English. The “stiweard” in those days was the man in charge of running the household affairs of the nobility, a sort of general manager of the manor or castle, and a very powerful man. Thus, a “steward” may or may not live up to his or her responsibilities in a given case, but the word itself is above reproach.