I admit that I’m sometimes stymied trying to come up with a suitable topic for these weekly posts. Yes, there are a plethora of common grammar and usage conundrums out there that I could highlight, but that’s the problem: They’re common.
I reject on principle the possibility of simply writing the millionth blog post about the difference between there, their, and they’re; or about not using apostrophe-s to make a plural; or about when to use fewer, when to use less, and when it doesn’t make a difference. That type of information is easy to come by and is already internalized by (I hope) most of this website’s readers.
After all, Copyediting.com is written by copy editors for copy editors, and one doesn’t become a copy editor if one is confounded by such routine problems. The bar is not low here.
This week, deciding on a topic has been especially difficult for me. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s a response to the disappointment of another summer gone, or my unusually heavy editing workload, or the emotional exhaustion of following the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico, the Las Vegas shooting, and the death of Tom Petty. Whatever it is, I was stymied even more than usual.
And then it hit me: I was stymied. Where does that word even come from?
From the Scottish stimie, stymie entered English in the 19th century as a golf term. It was a noun referring to a situation in which one player’s ball lies between another player’s ball and the hole on the putting green. You can imagine the frustration that such a stymie would create when the line between your ball and the hole is obstructed.
Over time, stymie extended its usefulness outside of golf to refer to any number of physical or metaphorical obstructions. Stymie is still used as a noun (“another stymie on the path to peace”), but more often it’s a verb meaning “to present an obstacle to or stand in the way of.” Synonyms include confound, hinder, impede, and one of my favorites, nonplus.
Proofreaders, Scrabble players, and spelling bee enthusiasts should note that the present participle form of stymie is arrived at simply by adding an -ing — stymieing — forming the relatively rare vowel cluster -iei-.