In recent campaigning, Donald Trump has been claiming Hillary Clinton “lacks the physical and mental stamina” to do the work of the presidency. His attacks in no way stand up to the facts, but one thing that does “stand up” is stamina, at least etymologically speaking.
A well-planted metaphor
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests stamina (in Latin form) in 1542, when it referred to the “natural constitution” of an organism, a kind of inborn vitality determining how long it would live and its capacity for resisting disease and hardship. Around 1676, stamina, now as an English word, was naming the “rudiments” or “essential qualities” of an organism, later extended figuratively, say, to an institution or movement. By 1726, as found in the letters of Jonathan Swift, stamina jumped to physical “vigor,” especially in the sense of withstanding the likes of illness and fatigue. Come the 1800s, it reached “moral and intellectual robustness and endurance.”
Originally, stamina was a plural noun both in English and Latin, its source. The singular is stamen. (English has been using stamina in the singular since the 18th century.) We are familiar with stamen in botanical contexts: it’s the part of the plant that makes the pollen. Flemish anatomist Adriaan van den Spiegel is credited for first employing it in this modern, scientific sense in 1633. And thanks to English Bishop John Wilkins, stamen pollinated the English tongue as such by 1668.
We should note, though, that centuries earlier, Pliny, the Roman scholar, lent Latin’s stamen to the lily’s prominent pollen producer; Hesychius of Alexandria, a Greek lexicographer, used its Greek counterpart (στῆμα, stoma) of plants early on as well.
So, what’s the common thread? Well, it’s just that. Latin’s stamen means “thread,” specifically the “thread of the warp in the upright loom.” The warp acts as a kind of foundation for the weave, which points us to stamen’s literal, base meaning: “that which stands.” Stand is the keyword here, as stamen and stand are ultimately cousins, sharing an ancient ancestor in *sta-, “stand.” This root is a mind-bogglingly prolific root, seen in Afghanistan, establish, obstacle, steed, and system, to name a paltry few derivatives.
Pliny, apparently, saw the lily’s stamen as a “thread,” as did van den Spiegel again many years later. But the ancient Romans also saw their mythology in stamen. They used stamen for the “thread of life spun by the Fates,” imagined as three sisters who spun, measured, and cut the threads that controlled the lives and destinies of humanity. In the 18th century, English writers enjoyed using stamen in this very sense, also broadening it to one’s “inborn vitality” much like we saw in the history of stamina.
And the common thread for all of English’s stamina and stamen is metaphor. A plant stamen can resemble a thread. The rudiments of an entity, that early stamina, are its foundation: the warp of a weave. And stamina was once understood as one’s inherent makeup, measuring out how long one would live, like those threads of the Fates.
In the 2016 election, nothing has seem fated – except for the stamina we’ve all shown in making it this far in what continues to be an unprecedented presidential campaign.
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The Ancient Greek στῆμα would be transliterated as stêma rather than “stoma” (στόμα stóma “mouth”).