Spelling or usage distinctions sometimes become shibboleths for copyeditors and pedants, no longer useful and therefore no longer worth worrying about. Witness the Associated Press Stylebook’s abandonment last year of keeping over for spatial relationship and more than for quantities.
Copyeditors are regularly accused of maintaining such distinctions rather than letting the language evolve freely. There is some truth to this of course, but such thinking tends to assign too much power to copyeditors. Copyeditors first try to follow our style guides, and we also try to follow conventions, even those observed in the minority. After all, we edit for the pedants, too.
The word staunch or stanch has diverged in function and meaning with the different spellings somewhat reflecting this divergence. Dictionaries, usage guides, and style books are likely to list the staunch spelling as the predominant adjective (a staunch supporter) and stanch as the predominant verb (stanch the flow).
But in common usage, and even in edited text, staunch is just as likely be the spelling of the verb as stanch in American English. In British English, stanch the flow is an uncommon alternative to staunch the flow.
“Meh; same root word, the variant verb spellings are neck&neck in AmE, & “to staunch” way ahead in BrE. Why not one spelling?
The word came to English in the 14th century. Stanch was a borrowing from France, where it meant to stop the flow of something, from an older word for watertight. It was used figuratively almost from the start to mean satisfy an appetite or stop the progress of an illness.
As an adjective, the word first meant watertight, and has been used that way in English since the early 15th century at least. It also soon described solid construction, as with a tower standing firm. Dogs were described as stanch in the 16th century, leading to the portmanteau stanchhound. Humans were stanch as early as 1624, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
It was only recently that the staunch spelling came to be applied more to the adjective and stanch to the verb, but the distinction has never been closely observed in general.
The verb and adjective forms, where observed, serve different ideas. A stanch person isn’t one who is not bleeding. To staunch the flow of water doesn’t mean to make it trustworthy. For that reason, a difference in spelling is defendable, possibly useful. But because the meaning and context are so different, there is almost no chance anyone would be confused by the different spellings. And if society says “meh,” perhaps we should no longer worry.
Style guides and copyeditors are concerned with consistency, so having two perfectly acceptable spellings (as with gray and grey) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pick one to avoid potentially confusing our readers. But we should at least be aware that our staunch support of a distinction is not always reflected by common usage.
The discussion on Twitter is interesting and useful, and your thoughts there and below are welcome and appreciated.