“Stunt”: a real “stumper” of an etymology

After some players took a knee during the national anthem, US Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. But many aren’t seeing his move as a un-dignifying departurebut a political stunt, a word whose ultimate origins are, shall we say, a bit stunted.

Stunt‘s long jump back to sports. (Pixabay)

Lexical exploits

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first finds stunt in an 1878 letter by English author Samuel Butler promoting his work: “It was a stunt for advertising the books.” But Butler’s “attention-seeking” stunt had apparently already migrated from American college sports slang.

Writing in 1895, the American Dialect Society (ADS) noted: “Doing stunts is used in N.Y. City by boys in the sense of performing some feat in rivalry,—a long jump for instance,—one boy ‘stumping’ or challenging another.” And by 1900, Webster’s Supplement defined stunt as “an act which is striking for the skill, strength, or the like, required to do it; a feat.”

Stunt quickly extended to theater (stunt actor, 1904) and cinema (stunt man, 1930), and was also taken up in World War I for a military “advance” or “push.”

Etymologist are “stumped”

Etymologists agree stunt emerges as a U.S. campus athletic colloquialism, but they aren’t certain where the word actually comes from. Some have suggested that stunt is handed down from the German Stunde, literally “hour,” or is a variant of stint, à la “period of work,” in the sense that a stunt is a kind of enterprise or undertaking.

Others have pointed stunt to back the very stumping the ADS mentioned in 1895. A stump, attested by the OED in 1871, was an Americanism for “a dare, or challenge to do something difficult or dangerous,” as Webster’s defined it in 1911. This stump comes from the early 1800s stump, as in “baffle” or “nonplus,” which the OED says probably alludes to “the obstruction caused by stumps in ploughing imperfectly cleared land.”

Does stunt bear any relationship to that other stunt of the English language, i.e., to stunt the growth of something? This stunt, “to check” or “hinder,” is found in the 1670s, according to the OED, and derives from earlier senses of “irritate” (1580s) and “bring to an abrupt stand” (1600s).

And these forms of the word ultimately go back to the Middle and Old English stunt, an adjective meaning “foolish” or “stupid”— perhaps as those original youthful athletic displays were seen? Some, it seems, are all too eager to extend this older sense of stunt to the current symbolic displays many American athletes are making in protest of very real indignities they’re communities are facing. 

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