My wife asked, out of the blue, “What does ‘it stands to reason’ mean? When you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense.” I thought about it, and sure enough, it didn’t make any sense. So I did a little research and discovered that it’s a reminder of an obsolete phrase “to stand to,” meaning (in the OED’s words) ‘To submit oneself to, abide by (a trial, award); to obey, accede to, be bound by (another’s judgement, decision, opinion, etc.).’ So originally something “stood to (obeyed) reason” in the same way as a person “stood to a judgment”; when the verbal phrase was eroded by time, the cliché remained behind, a lone outcropping, as puzzling as one of the oddly shaped mesas of Coconino County.

Some examples of the earlier usage:

1584 LYLY Campaspe I. iii. 76 In kinges causes I will not stande to schollers arguments.
1616 A. CHAMPNEY A Treatise on the Vocation of Bishops 21 Such a Reformer is not bound to stand to the judgement of the Church.
1692 BENTLEY Boyle Lect. vi. 5 Will they not stand to the grand Verdict and Determination of the Universe?
1700 J. TYRRELL Hist. Eng. II. 889 The King summon’d [them] to appear.., and stand to the Law


  1. Hrm. I always interpreted this in the same sense as “this will not stand,” meaning if something “stands to reason” it is left standing after having been subjected to a thorough thinking-through, which seems to fit in with the 1584 example, but not the others.

  2. I’m with Jim, I allus heard “stands to” as if it were “would stand up to”. Thanks for the correction. Hey by the way, on the topic of Coconino County and its inhabitants, is the language spoken by Krazy and his/her friends a representation of some region’s English or is it Herriman’s own invention? Just curious.

  3. It is said to be based on the dialect of New Orleans, Herriman’s home town (which sounds to some ears surprisingly similar to Brooklynese).

  4. I always assumed it was a variation on Yiddish, but I learned differently once I discovered the Internet. “Herriman was from New Orleans?!”
    Check out this page:
    “Many of Krazy’s curious pronounciations can still be heard, especially in parts of the 9th ward, biwater, and midcity areas of New Orleans.”
    Man, I know where my next vacation will be.

  5. Beloved Brewer says “To be logically manifest. This English expression reflects the Latin _constat_ , from _constare_ , ‘to stand together’.”
    But then Brewer (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable) does not tell me why it’s “a cat in hell’s chance”, meaning no chance at all. Surely something with nine lives and familiar of witches would be having a ball in hell?

  6. Brewer’s is a lot of fun, but I implore you not to depend on it for this sort of information! I don’t know what E. Cobham Brewer’s background was, but he was neither a linguist nor a good writer (from the preface to my 1898 edition, which already contained this constare guess: “The last ten years of this Nineteenth Century has been…”). Information on obscure literary characters is probably accurate; statements about language are often wild surmises.

  7. qB — at any rate it would not be having a snowball.

  8. Jeremy – best laugh all day :))
    Hat – indeed, Brewer is fun not fact… but… (very reluctantly…) does my scepticism have to extend to my favourite entry, “Pig in a poke, A”, which links pleasingly to “Let the cat out of the bag, To, see under ‘Let'”? Actually forget I asked. Too many illusions shattered already.

  9. I remember an SF story, probably by Asimov or Spider Robinson although I couldn’t swear to it, in which an enormous stone being is persuaded to move by being asked a question requiring logic, because: “It only stands to reason….”

  10. John Cowan says

    A feghoot, I bet, probably by Randall Garrett.

  11. I remember an SF story, probably by Asimov or Spider Robinson

    Two decades later: it turns out to be the latter, to wit The Callahan Chronicals (p. 104 in the Google Books edition).

  12. I very much liked the one Spider Robinson story I read, but looking for more I found that his works are out of print. That’s a shame.

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