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shameless pleading

Stop

Stuff it with stuff.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “stop”? — AJ.

Well, there’s a small but interesting question. Deceptively simple, too. After all, we all use “stop” at least a few times every day, whether at home (“Please stop chewing the dog’s ear, Timmy”), at work (“I don’t know. He was doing my annual evaluation and he just stopped, like someone had poisoned his coffee”), or on the road (“That’s the third stop sign you’ve blown through, Ralph. Either put down the sandwich or hang up the phone”). Speaking of stop signs, I happen to know people who seriously maintain that stop signs and speed limits are nothing more than informational “suggestions” supplied by helpful government agencies, on a par with signs that say “Hidden Driveway” or “Troll Under Bridge.” Yet another reason to shop online.

But while “stop” is a simple little staple of everyday life, it’s also a very old word, and very old words, as we’ve seen, can be hiding some fairly weird stories.

“Stop” first appeared in Old English as “stoppian,” which has, so far, only been found in the written record in the form “forstoppian,” meaning “to stop or stifle,” usually referring to someone’s breath. Many European and Scandinavian languages (German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, et al.) developed similar “stop” words, all of which probably came from the Late Latin “stuppare,” meaning “to stop up or stuff with tow or oakum.” This “stuppare,” in turn, came from the Classical Latin “stuppa,” which meant “tow or oakum,” which, for many of us, raises the question “What the heck are tow and oakum?”

Both “tow” and “oakum” are the coarser, shorter fibers of flax, hemp or jute, separated out from the longer, finer strands used in spinning cloth. Oakum in particular was also used to mean short fibers of hemp obtained by picking apart lengths of old rope, a tedious activity often assigned to convicts and inmates of workhouses (“He had heard of a work-house, in this city, into which refractory servants are committed, and put to hard labour; such as pounding hemp, grinding plaister of Paris, and picking old ropes into oakum,” 1804). The resulting bits were used to caulk ships (“Ships, Barks, Hoyes, Drumlers, Craires, Boats, all would sink, But for the Ocum caulk’d in euery chink,” Praise of Hemp, 1620), seal pipe fittings, and even as dressings for wounds (“Who should it be but Mr. Daniel, all muffled up … and his right eye stopped with Okum?” Samuel Pepys, Diary, 1666).

So the verb “to stop” originally meant to block or stop up an opening as if with a plug (a “stopper”) of oakum or tow, but quickly came to be used more generally for any situation where movement was impeded by an obstruction (“The enemy sunk the ship at the mouth of the harbour, which stopped up the channel,” 1790). “Stop” was also used to mean simply “fill a hole,” as in a tooth (“One had his teeth peculiarly stopped with gold,” 1896) or a plaster wall, and even to stanch a bleeding wound.

In the 14th century, “stop” began to be used in its modern sense of “to bring a person, animal, thing or process to a halt” by one means or another (not necessarily using a physical obstruction). This “stop” now included preventing a person from doing something via law or argument, or to put an end to a process, activity or course of events (“For God’s sake stop the grunting of those Pigs!” Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820).

“Stop” had also come into use as a noun back in the 16th century meaning “the act of halting or being halted; a cessation of action or progress,” as well as “something which restrains or impedes action,” a broad range which came to include “traffic stops,” the “stops”(graduated valves) of a pipe organ, and the “f-stops,” varying diaphragm settings, of a camera lens. “Stop” is also used, more in Britain than the US, to mean a point of punctuation, with “full stop” being, quite logically, what is in the US called “a period.”

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