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shameless pleading






I brake for silly.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve spent hours over the last several days watching the incomparable Laurel and Hardy (captured from a recent day-long film festival). In the classic short where they have to deliver a player piano, they find the house in question at the top of an impossibly long set of steps. The postman points them to it, saying, “It’s at the top of that long stoop.” Of course, disaster results. It did get me thinking — “stoop” seems to be one of those wonderfully contradictory words, meaning both “up” (on top of that stoop) and “down” (I stooped to pick up my bowler hat after the player piano crashed into my head). Can you shed light on how that came to be? Also, I would appreciate an explanation as to why girls don’t like either the Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy. My wife has a superb sense of humor, but can’t watch either. When queried why, I usually get an answer along the lines of “Because they’re so mean!” — Chris Schultz.

I don’t know. It’s weird. Personally, I tend toward the Marx Brothers end of the spectrum, but I’ve yet to meet a person of the female persuasion who truly enjoys them, either (“truly enjoy” being defined as “willing to watch Duck Soup at least three times per year”). But it’s entirely possible that your wife harbors a secret appreciation for some flavor of comedy you would find incomprehensible. I know an otherwise perfectly sane woman, for instance, who finds the Johnny Knoxville “Jackass” movies absolutely hilarious. “Go figure” doesn’t begin to cover this aberration.

Where were we? Oh right. The reason “stoop” can mean both “a raised platform outside the door of a building” and “to bend over low to the ground” is simply that the two senses of “stoop” are actually two entirely separate words.

The verb “to stoop” appeared in Old English as “stupian,” derived from the same Germanic roots that gave us “steep” (as well as “steeple”). The original sense of “stoop” was “to bow down,” specifically to bow one’s head or bend down from the waist, either as a sign of respect or submission (“All suche as wayte on hym, stoupe downe & make lowe curtesie.” 1553), or to retrieve or inspect something much lower than eye level (“He raised his head suddenly from the desk over which he was stooping,” C. Bronte, Jane Eyre, 1847). Beginning in the early 16th century, “to stoop” was commonly used in the figurative sense of “to submit or ‘bow’ to authority, to demonstrate obedience” (“His … victory over his enemies, which will make all his neyghbor kinges stoope to him,” 1666). This usage is considered rare today, but “stoop” is still used in the figurative sense of “to lower oneself socially or to degrade oneself morally” (“If you can stoop to an alliance with a family so poor as mine, take her,” Oliver Goldsmith, Vicar of Wakefield, 1766. Goldsmith also wrote the enduring comedic play “She Stoops to Conquer” in 1773.).

“Stoop” as a noun meaning “an uncovered platform at the door of a house reached by a flight of steps” comes from the Dutch “stoep,” derived from the same root that gave us “step.” (The Dutch “stoep” is apparently a bit larger than our “stoop,” in classic Dutch architecture being more of a platform across the front of the house similar to a veranda.) The use of “stoop” is considered a North American coinage, and we’ve put the humble stoop to good use. In the days before TV and air conditioning, the stoop of brownstone row houses was the “three-season patio” of urban working-class families, and in many New York neighborhoods today hanging out on the stoop is still an important venue for social interaction (as well as for just observing the passing scene from a comfortably elevated position).

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