Copyeditors Sometimes Stand Firm Against a Flood
I read a 73-word lead sentence in a story at NOLA.com, the website of The Times-Picayune, and I made it to the 67th word before I stopped. I won’t reproduce the entire sentence here because you’re a busy person, but the word that struck me is in bold:
The second phase of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident and oil spill trial resumed in New Orleans on Monday (Sept. 30), with ... BP attorneys arguing that the company spent billions of dollars to staunch the flow amid uncertain conditions.
I may be considered persnickety in this, but I remove the u when I see staunch the flow, preferring to stanch any blood, water or other liquid. When I see staunch, I want it to mean loyal and true. The distinction is staunchly maintained by good copyeditors everywhere, but we may not be able to stanch the flood of those who routinely add the u.
Staunch the flow gets 657,000 Google hits. A bunch of those are discussions of the words, but stanch the flow gets only 374,000 Google hits. A Google News search gets 49 hits on recent cases of staunch the flow, including two about the BP Deepwater Horizon trial. For the AP Stylebook-preferred stanch the flow, Google News gives me 24 hits and a question—Did you mean: staunch the flow.
It’s helpful when defending a waning usage to be able to point to the unique etymologies of words. Words that sound alike often come from different origins. In this case, though, there is one source. Failing to maintain the distinction is simply returning the words to their root.
The verb came first, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The root is probably Latin but it’s certainly Romance, with Old French having estanchier, which meant to stop the flow, and also to make a vessel watertight. It’s from that meaning we get the adjective staunch. Ships were staunch from the early 15th century, and the watertight meaning soon mingled with the well-constructed meaning. Staunch people were loyal and true by the 17th century, and it looks like dogs were so even earlier.
I know I risk being labeled a picky prescriptivist, but on certain words, I feel compelled to throw down the gauntlet, even if it means running a gantlet of criticism. I’ll keep subtracting the “u” for liquid-related meanings.