Another bout of idle wondering led me to look up the etymology of stamina; I suddenly realized it looked like the plural of stamen, but thought “that can’t be right.” As it turns out, it is, in an unexpected way. Before stamen meant “The male or fertilizing organ of a flowering plant,” it meant ‘the warp in an upright loom’ (the Latin word stāmen is from the Proto-Indo-European root *stā- ‘stand’), and from there it came to mean (in the OED’s words) “The thread spun by the Fates at a person’s birth, on the length of which the duration of his life was suppose[d] to depend. Hence, in popular physiology, the measure of vital impulse or capacity which it was supposed that each person possessed at birth, and on which the length of his life, unless cut short by violence or disease, was supposed to depend.” (1709 Tatler No. 15.1 “All, who enter into human life, have a certain date or Stamen given to their being, which they only who die of age may be said to have arrived at”; 1753 L. M. Accompl. Woman I. 246 “Bad example hath not less influence upon education than a bad stamen upon the constitution.”) Hence the plural stamina meant “The congenital vital capacities of a person or animal, on which (other things being equal) the duration of life was supposed to depend; natural constitution as affecting the duration of life or the power of resisting debilitating influences” (1701 C. WOLLEY Jrnl. New York 60 “Such as have the natural Stamina of a consumptive propagation in them”; 1823 GILLIES Aristotle’s Rhet. I. v. 180 “If the stamina are not sound, disease will soon ensue”), and finally the modern sense “Vigour of bodily constitution; power of sustaining fatigue or privation, of recovery from illness, and of resistance to debilitating influences; staying power” (1726 SWIFT Let. Sheridan 27 July Wks. 1841 II. 588/1, “I indeed think her stamina could not last much longer when I saw she could take no nourishment”). This was originally construed as a plural, but by the nineteenth century careless writers were using it as a singular (1834 M. SCOTT Cruise Midge viii, “Why, Sir Oliver, the man is exceedingly willing,.. but his stamina is gone entirely”), and this rapidly became standard. Heretofore, when encountering people who insist that data should take a plural verb, I have said “I presume, then, you feel the same about agenda“; I will now add stamina to my arsenal.


  1. Fascinating stuff. Even though I always use data as a plural, I’ve never quibbled with those who use it otherwise. Now I can further polish my descriptivist cred by asking everyone I meet, “how are your stamina?” Thanks!

  2. miniton says:

    LanguageHat, offtopic question that has been bugging me that your knowledge might enlighten:
    Do you think there is something problematic in language change and usage as a form of fallacious appeal to popular opinion? Or is language usage something that can be decided by popular opinion and not fallacious at all?

  3. Crown, Arthur says:

    What a gem, Language Hat. I love, a) seeing that the meaning changed completely during little more than one hundred years (1709-1826), and, b) the stamen-warp thread-duration of life sequence. It’s a very good metaphor, I suppose the events of that life are the weft that the stamina support(s). But we should reintroduce the warp meaning, remembering warp is a tensile support: ‘the presidential candidates work so hard they must have nylon stamina’, sounds surprising. How about ‘elastic stamina’?

  4. Crown, Arthur says:

    LH wrote: “Heretofore, when encountering people who insist that data should take a plural verb, I have said “I presume, then, you feel the same about agenda”; I will now add stamina to my arsenal.”
    I don’t know about ‘stamina’, but ‘warp’ is one of those nouns whose plural takes a singular that they’re talking about on (at, in?) Language Log: chad, rice, water, hay, etc.

  5. but ‘warp’ is one of those nouns whose plural takes a singular
    You mean, as in “warp 6″?

  6. Do you think there is something problematic in language change and usage as a form of fallacious appeal to popular opinion? Or is language usage something that can be decided by popular opinion and not fallacious at all?
    I think you’re trying to separate two things that are actually the same, “popular opinion” and “language usage,” which is to say, the way language is used by the majority of native speakers. Usage inevitably changes over the years (in complicated ways that are being elucidated by careful studies of dialects and historical records), and just as inevitably, people who grew up with one form of the language object to hearing a newer form around them and rail about “degeneration” and “corruption” and the like. Our educated forefathers doubtless hated hearing stamina used as a singular; now we take it for granted and are surprised to find it was ever otherwise. I used to be annoyed by hopefully as a sentence adverb; now I think it’s fine. I will always be annoyed by may have used where I would say might have (“If he’d run faster, he may have caught the ball”), but I recognize this is my own old-fartism and the language is just going on its merry way. The only fallacy here is the thought that there is something wrong with language change (and, of course, the idea that it can somehow be stopped).
    Does this answer your question? If not, please ask a follow-up.

  7. Noetica says:

    Ah yes, stamen. I remember researching this one myself a while ago. Let’s see if I can take it some distance now, in new directions.
    Cognate is Greek στήμων, as found in Callistemon, our fine-looking Australian genus that includes the bottlebrushes and other myrtaceous trees and shrubs. OED offers up also the genera Pentstemon and Podostemon; and, under stylo-, stylostemon: “1856 Henslow Dict. Bot. Terms, *Stylostemon, an epigynous stamen, originating in adhesion of the filament to the style.”
    Stem (of a plant) is connected via the root *stā-. Even Greek ἱστός (“tissue”, as “weft” or “web”) is related, and turns up in our histology for a different kind of tissue.
    For an idea that is perhaps related to figurative stamina, consider fibre in moral fibre and the like.
    No use of fibre like this is recorded as explicitly figurative from before mid-19C in OED (see 4b) – surprisingly recent, I had thought. Fibre is not in Shakespeare at all; and among major philosophers I find nothing earlier than Locke’s concrete use, in just one paragraph of Human Understanding (1690) to illustrate the futility of recursive definition. OED seems to have missed Charlotte Bronte’s earlier figurative use than its 1855, in Jane Eyre (1847):
    ‘Jane suits me: do I suit her?’
    ‘To the finest fibre of my nature, sir.’
    And OED is innocent of occurrences in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) that at least verge on the “moral” and incline away from the literal physiological:
    …a proof that the fault of his constitution was rather a too great tension of fibres, than the contrary.
    …it is too certain, that where the frame has delicate fibres, and there is a fine sensibility, such influences of the air are irresistible.
    This from Blake is perhaps intermediate between concrete and figurative, given its context in Auguries of Innocence (1803):
    Each outcry of the hunted Hare
    A fibre from the Brain does tear.
    A Skylark wounded in the wing,
    A Cherubim does cease to sing.
    Fibres for brains, sinews for hearts. Compare The Tyger:
    And what shoulder, & what art,
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    Anyway, the later citations for OED’s concrete sense 2 (“2. Phys. One of a number of thread-like bodies or filaments, that enter into the composition of animal (muscular, nervous, etc.) and vegetable tissue. a. in animals. fibres of Corti: see Cortian a.”) read as progressing towards figurative use, if not crossing over into it:
    …a1634 Chapman (W.), Yet had no fibres in him, nor no force. 1638 W. Grant in G. Sandys’ Paraphr. Div. Poems Pref. Verse, sweetely strikes Upon the Cords, and Fivers of the Heart. 1742 Young Nt. Th. v. 1059 The tender tyes, Close-twisted with the fibres of the heart! 1831 Carlyle Misc. (1857) II. 329 Every fibre of him is Philistine. 1847 Emerson Poems, Monadnoc Wks. (Bohn) I. 435 And of the fibre..Whose throbs are love. a1853 Robertson Addr. ii. (1858) 55 They are bound up in every fibre of my being.
    The parallel between fibre and stamina seems warranted by OED’s first definition of stamina:
    †1. (As pl.) The native or original (as distinguished from the adventitious) elements and constitution of anything; the nature, structure and qualities of an organism, as existing potentially in its nascent state; the rudiments or germs from which living beings or their organs are developed.
    Is it, um,… a stretch to insinuate here nerve and Blake’s sinew? I think not. OED has, for sinew, “†2. A nerve. Obs.” and “3. Chiefly pl. Strength, energy, force.”, and similar connexions for nerve both as literal sinew and moral strength. All very fibrous and staminal; nay, stemonic.
    And how about thews, for a reverse semantic move? Originally abstract qualities of a mensh (OED: “OE. þéaw = OS. thau usage, custom, habit, OHG. thau (dau) discipline”), later the concrete senses appear, and soon have at least equal standing with the original concrete senses:
    3 [...] b. The bodily powers or forces of a man (L. vires), might, strength, vigour; in Shakes., bodily proportions, lineaments, or parts, as indicating physical strength; in modern use after Scott, muscular development, associated with sinews, and hence materialized as if = muscles or tendons. Also in sing. and fig.
    (OED’s “fig.” here indicates a secondary shift to figurative use, as in this citation: “1977 N.Y. Rev. Bks. 15 Sept. 40/3 By ‘language’ he means not the whole body of speech, the thew and sinew of the language..but a precursor’s language.”)
    The Chapman citation above (“Yet had no fibres in him, nor no force”) looks very thewish and vis-like to me.

Speak Your Mind