Stopping the Flow

‘Staunch’ or ‘stanch’?

Frantic efforts are underway to shut off the oil flowing from a well in the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone agrees that cutting off the flow of oil is a good thing. News reports, though, can’t seem to agree whether workers are seeking to “stanch” the flow or “staunch” the flow. And neither can dictionaries and style guides.

“Staunch,” in standard American English, is supposed to be an adjective meaning “faithful” or “steadfast,” as in “France remains a staunch ally of the U.S.” “Stanch” is supposed to be a verb meaning “to stop the flow.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that “staunch is preferable as the adjective” and “stanch as the verb,” and calls the use of “staunch” for “stanch” still “widely shunned.”

The Associated Press and New York Times stylebooks side with Garner, calling for “stanch” as the verb.

But Webster’s New World College Dictionary, fourth edition, the preferred dictionary of both the AP and The New York Times, unabashedly lists “staunch” as a verb, “to stop or check (the flow of blood or of tears, etc.) from (a wound, opening, etc.).” In a usage note, WNW says “For the adj., staunch is now the prevailing form in the U.S.; for the v., usage is about evenly divided between staunch and stanch.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that “the two spelling variants have been in reputable use for centuries, and they are standard both for the verb and for the adjective.” It says: “Stanch is the much more common spelling of the verb.”

Um, not according to a Nexis and blog search, which shows “staunch” far outpacing “stanch” as the verb, except for some careful outlets that are apparently following their stylebooks.

Both “stanch” and “staunch” come from the Old French word “estanchier,” meaning, well, “to stanch.” And since the first definition of “staunch” as an adjective means “watertight,” the source of the confusion is obvious. When you “stanch” a wound—or a well—you’re seeking to make it “staunch.”

So it’s fascinating to see some of the more contemporary dictionaries, such as the New American Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, list the verb “staunch” as a variant spelling of “stanch,” which smacks of disapproval, while some more traditional dictionaries accept it wholeheartedly.

The granddaddy of dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary , simply lists “staunch” and “stanch” in a single entry, reflecting common British usage of either spelling as noun and verb.

American usage is moving toward British usage—or is that back toward British usage—all the time. It’s impossible to “stanch” that flow, so just be “staunch” about it.

Correction: The original version of this article mentioned the North American Oxford Dictionary, a book which does not actually exist. It is the New American Oxford Dictionary. CJR regrets the error.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.