In Stir.

My wife (whose questions have been the source of many a post) asked “Why do we say ‘in stir’ for ‘in prison’?” I went to AHD and discovered this fascinating and unexpected etymology:

[Short for Romani stariben, stirapen : star, variant of astar, to seize, causative of ast, to remain, stop (probably akin to Prakrit atthaï, he sits, from earlier Middle Indic *āsthāti, he remains, from Sanskrit ātiṣṭhati , he stands by, remains on : ā-, near, to, at + tiṣṭati, sthā-, he stands; see sthā- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots) + Romani –ben, n. suff.]

(The Appendix entry is actually “stā- To stand; with derivatives meaning ‘place or thing that is standing.’ Oldest form *steh2‑, colored to *stah2‑, contracted to *stā‑.” I assume things have gone slightly out of whack between editions.) Can anyone with access to OED3 tell me whether it has the same etymology?

Also, a lovely example of the phrase in use, from the pen of the immortal Walt Kelly (as quoted by Ron Smith in this 14-year-old LH post):

“Oh, whence that wince,
My wench?” quoth I.
She sighed and said, “Oh Sir,
My papa ain’t been stirrin’
Since my mama’s been in stir.”

Comments

  1. Evan Hess says:

    The OED entry hasn’t been updated since 1917: it says the etymology is unknown.

  2. Ah, I might have expected that. Thanks!

  3. …and since you linked to it (thanks for the tip), Green’s Dictionary of Slang says “abbr. Rom. sturiben, a prison, staripen, to imprison; ult. štar, to imprison”.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sampson’s remarkable Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales likewise has stariben “prison”, from star- “arrest.”

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    But I am interested to discover from the OED that that’s the origin of ‘stir crazy’ – I always thought it was a general astir, moving about restlessly.

  6. Muireann Maguire says:

    My favourite local cafe (albeit an aggressively middle-class one) in Cambridge is called Stir. They do a mean beetroot latte. I don’t think the prison pun was intended, however…

  7. In don’t think I have ever encountered stir “in the wild” as a reference to prison, except in the expression stir crazy. (Then again, I don’t know very many people who have had personal interactions with the penal system.) And even then, most uses of stir crazy that I hear are probably not meant to refer to literal confinement in a prison or jail. Probably a lot of people using the phrase are not even aware of the connection to prison; the phrase naturally lends itself to the folk etymology mentioned by Jen in Edinburgh. I don’t think I knew about the more precise original meaning until I saw the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor film Stir Crazy (which, I just discovered, was directed by Sidney Poitier).

  8. January First-of-May says:

    Probably a lot of people using the phrase are not even aware of the connection to prison; the phrase naturally lends itself to the folk etymology mentioned by Jen in Edinburgh.

    For what it’s worth, I personally don’t recall having ever encountered the term stir for “prison” anywhere at all before this thread – not even in a dictionary, and not even as the origin of stir crazy (which I did know).

    I don’t think I ever wondered about the etymology of stir crazy, but if I ever did, I probably would have just decided that it means “like you’ve been stirred”.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    I did have a bit of a “what do you mean, ‘we'” reaction to Mrs. Hat’s question, because while I know the phrase “in stir” I don’t think of it as being in the active versus passive vocabulary of myself or pretty much anyone I know. It’s not clear to me if there’s a critical mass of AmEng speakers in 2018 who do actively use it, and if so what their demographics are. Future Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, FWIW, used it a bit over four decades ago as part of a memorably forced rhyme:

    “We want to put his ass in stir
    We want to pin this triple mur-
    -der on him
    He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”

  10. I suppose hard-boiled detective and crime novels aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m quite familiar with the usage from those novels.

  11. Are these rec3nt detective novels? It would surprise me their vocab would be so different from the tv detective genre.

  12. It’s the Dylan use I’m familiar with as well.

  13. @Ryan: Well, the hardboiled genre flourished in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and later works often take their esthetic cues from that period.

  14. In modern colloquial Polish, to spend time in jail is rendered as ‘siedziec’ – literally, ‘to sit’. ‘Siedzial trzy lata’ – ‘he ‘sat’ [served jail time] for three years’.

  15. ‘siedziec’ – literally, ‘to sit’

    Kto zh yego posadit? On zhe pamyatnik

  16. I am also a native American English speaker, who is completely unfamiliar with the expression “in stir.” I don’t read many crime or detective novels though.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered stir crazy, but never in stir. Slammer, big house, doing (a hard) time…

  18. Araucaria says:

    And also according to Greens (https://greensdictofslang.com/entry/ignpvra) the UK slang term ‘porridge’ meaning a prison term is a pun on ‘stir’. Made famous of course by Ronnie Corbett’s Porridge sitcom of the 1970s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgheDYmbUvQ

  19. And there’s “doing porridge” of course, resulting in a 70s TV series (still repeated on British TV) called Porridge – called Doing Time in the USA, apparently. But you don’t stir the porridge, you just got served it (grey, monotonous watery sludge stuff in prison, no doubt) every day.

    People in the UK use the term “stir crazy” as a result of being trapped with their resentful families in a holiday caravan among the gloomy hills and lowering clouds on a perpetually rainy August Bank Holiday weekend.

  20. In modern colloquial Polish, to spend time in jail is rendered as ‘siedziec’ – literally, ‘to sit’.

    Presumably borrowed from Russian, where it goes back a couple of centuries.

  21. I guess my wife originally asked about the expression “stir crazy”; I said it was from “stir” meaning ‘prison,’ as in the phrase “in stir” (I’ve read my share of hard-boiled detective novels), and she asked where that was from. So “in stir” was my contribution, not hers (though we’re both way behind the times).

  22. crime or detective novels

    Films, too, of course.

    For instance, in “Shadow of the Thin Man,” Nick and Nora go to a wrestling match (about 25 mins into the version I found online on some Russian site) and sit next to Spider Webb, who ain’t been around because he’s been in stir.

  23. Stir crazy. Cabin fever.

  24. Presumably borrowed from Russian, where it goes back a couple of centuries.

    Siedzieć w więzieniu, literally ‘sit in jail’ (any synonym of ‘jail’ can be used instead) is a very old expression in Polish, too. What’s relatively modern and informal is the omission of the locative phrase. It’s hard to tell if it’s Russian influence or a parallel ellipsis.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Found in German, too, though perhaps less often.

    (Yay! A Piotr sighting!)

  26. Siedzieć w więzieniu, literally ‘sit in jail’ (any synonym of ‘jail’ can be used instead) is a very old expression in Polish, too. What’s relatively modern and informal is the omission of the locative phrase. It’s hard to tell if it’s Russian influence or a parallel ellipsis.

    Ah, interesting. Someone should do a comparative/historical study of Slavic idioms.

  27. Original Russian expression was “sidet’ v osade” (‘be besieged’, literally “sit under siege”).

    Apparently it was much more common experience for people to live in a besieged town than being in prison, so the latter meaning developed to cover the state of being unfree – after all, a town under siege is nothing but a big prison.

    Interestingly, English word ‘siege’ also comes from Latin word meaning “seat”

  28. “We want to put his ass in stir…

    I always heard that line as “in A stir”. Never wondered much what “a stir” was I guess.

  29. Sidet’ v plenu is the Russian expression meaning “to be a prisoner of war”. Does Polish have a similar expression, and do other Slavic languages have expressions using a word related to Russian sidet’ to mean to be in an unfree state — jailed, besieged, captive?

    As for “in stir”, I don’t recall ever having encountered that expression and until now didn’t know its meaning.

  30. Charles Perry says:

    Re Narmitaj, “stirabout” is an Irish term for porridge.

  31. Porridge starred Ronnie Barker, not Ronnie Corbett. The other of the “Two Ronnies”.

  32. @SFReader: Siege for “seat” exists in English (I am not sure if “survives” would be a proper description; it may never been used in vernacular English) in one instance. The Siege Perilous was the seat at the Round Table that could only be occupied by the finder of the Holy Grail (Percival originally, changed to Galahad after the incorporation of Lancelot into the Arthurian myths).

  33. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Siege” for seat is also found in Shakespeare and Spenser but whether it reflects some degree of ordinary vernacular usage c. 1600 or was a poetic affectation even then is unclear to me.

  34. There is at least one indication in the OED entry that suggests that the this meaning of siege was perceived as being “French.” The attested spelling seems to follow the way the word was spelled in French: initially fairly consistently as “sege”; then in several alternate forms, including “syege” and “seege”; finally settling on the modern “siege.” On the other hand, however, the word has quite a few other senses derived from the “seat” meaning: an ecclesiastical see, a capital/capitol of government, and a commode, among others. (The common origins of siege, this sense of see, and seat were probably influential in this.) So it seems likely that the word was in normal usage, even if it still seemed slightly “foreign.”

  35. It’s sedeti v zatvoru in Serbo-Croat so that’s a south, east and west Slavonic hat trick.

  36. John Cowan says:

    Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, the preeminent work of general history in the 15C, contains the word, and the OED quotes him: “Þerynne is […] dyuers oute goynges, benches, and seges [L. sedilia] all aboute.” Diverse outgoings (?), benches, and sieges all about. Doesn’t sound like poetry (and is definitely not verse).

  37. Thanks for the Walt Kelly quotation!

  38. I try never to miss a chance to slip in a Walt Kelly quotation!

  39. I’ve never encountered that usage. I thought “to stir” was a synonym for fidgeting, as in stir in your sleep. And stirring a synonym of inspiring.
    Also “да седиш в затвора” is Bulgarian for “to sit in jail” so that seems pretty universal.

  40. “Stir” crops up as a synonym for “prison” fairly often in the cluing of the sort of cryptic crosswords I while away my evenings with. I would, however, be surprised to encounter it in the wild. But the same would also be true of many other colorful terms for prison: can, clink, calaboose, cooler, etc. I suspect we’d need to ask a hypothetical LH reader who is actually in the hoosegow what the contemporary slang would be.

  41. Bill W.: Sidet’ v plenu

    Siedzieć w niewoli (literally, ‘sit in captivity’) is quite possible in Polish. And in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (under AD 1036) we have Ða let he hine on hæft settan (‘set in custody’ = ‘take captive, imprison’).

    While we’re at it, sittan in prisoun can be found in Middle English, and the causative variant wth settan (‘set’ = ’cause [a person] to sit’) was pretty common at that time (as was the practice of incarceration):

    Þe kyng tok þe principalis of London, and sette hem in prison at Wyndesore.

    The OED has examples of this use of set up to the mid-16th c.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian:
    sitte i fengsel “sit in prison”, sitte i varetekt “sit in custody”
    sette i fengsel “set/put in prison”, bli satt i fengsel “be sat/put in prison”
    Colloquially; sitte inne “sit in(side)”, sette inn “set/put in”, bli satt inn “be sat/put in”

    4424 norske kvinner satt i tysk fangenskap under andre verdenskrig. “4424 Norwegian women sat in German captivity during World War II.” (source)

  43. Chinese for ‘spend time in jail’ is 坐牢 zuò láo ‘sit jail’.

  44. It would seem that Modern English is the outlier, then.

  45. “sit in prison” seems to be used in Modern English. There are 8.2 million results for “sitting in prison” on Google…

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Did that mean “stable” at some point, or has the character been simplified beyond recognition?

  47. “sit in prison” seems to be used in Modern English.

    Well, just about anything grammatical is going to be used in some sense, and 8.2 million results is not a lot — it just shows it’s used. I defy you to find an English speaker who uses “he’s sitting” to mean “he’s in prison”; in Russian it’s perfectly standard.

  48. “I’d rather die than sit in prison for the rest of my life”. Maybe “I’d rather die than rot in prison” is better.

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    Oscar Wilde famously preferred the VP “lie in gaol” to “sit in” ditto, but perhaps he was being idiosyncratic or decadent or something.

  50. I don’t know the history of the term’s semantics, but it covers a range of meanings. According to Wiktionary, the English meanings of the Chinese character are: prison; stable, pen; secure.

    Chinese 牢固 láogù means ‘firm, stable’.

    Japanese 牢獄 rōgoku and 牢屋 rōya also mean ‘prison’.

  51. “I’d rather die than sit in prison for the rest of my life”.

    I specifically said “he’s sitting,” not “he’s sitting in prison”; the latter is an easy coinage that doesn’t imply a fixed usage, the former does.

  52. Ah, OK. So Modern English isn’t the outlier, then: like many other languages (Chinese, Norwegian, Middle English), it uses a phrase translating to “to sit in prison” for “to be in prison”. It’s only Polish and Russian that use simply “to sit”, without a location, for “to be in prison”.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    German, too, when context makes it clear. I’ve encountered er sitzt, weil er gestanden hat “he’s sitting [in prison] because he stood [ < stehen] / confessed [ < gestehen] as the punchline of a joke.

    (Doesn’t work for me, because verbs not only of motion but also of non-motion form their passé composé with sein instead of haben in Austria, keeping ist gestanden “(has) stood” apart from hat gestanden “(has) confessed”.)

  54. It’s only Polish and Russian that use simply “to sit”, without a location, for “to be in prison”.

    Ms Monaco would say that’s because it’s more common in these countries to be sitting in prison than sitting in a chair

  55. I’ve only heard “sitting” in English in that one song: “You did your sittin’, you did hard time. But you ain’t gonna sit no more, they can’t keep you there no more.” Green’s Dictionary doesn’t have that meaning for “sit”, so either the songwriter made it up or he got it from a subculture that was small enough to escape Green. The explication “you did hard time” suggests that the audience wasn’t expected to understand “sitting” on its own.

  56. J.W. Brewer says:

    The same Nobel-laureate text I quoted way upthread also contains the perhaps overwrought simile “Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell,” but again because it’s not just sitting-without-specifying-where it doesn’t suggest an actual English idiom. The other crime/trial/prison-themed song Dylan had on the same album is more laconic: “He did ten years in Attica, reading Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich.” I guess the implication is that “Attica” is clear enough, or at least that a listener who doesn’t get the reference will be too embarrassed to so admit.

  57. It’s sedeti v zatvoru in Serbo-Croat

    It’s more common to use ležati u zatvoru (to lie in prison). Though not nearly as much as I expected (55 000 Google results for s(j)edi u zatvoru vs. 82 200 for leži u zatvoru. I think my expectation was way off because of how much more popular odležati is in this context than odsjediti.

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