The Grammarphobia Blog

“STOP” watch

Q: I was listening to you on the Leonard Lopate Show when Leonard remarked on all the English words that the French were using. He gave the stop sign as an example. Actually, the word stop is French and comes from the verb stopper. We have had stop signs in France forever and never used arrêt signs as the Canadians do.

A: I’m no expert on Gallic etymology, but I suspect that the French did indeed borrow the word stop from English, though this isn’t exactly breaking news. My French language references have many citations for stop and stopper over the last century. But the few that are any older, such as one in Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons, seem to be derived from the English “stop.”

In fact, the verb stopper doesn’t appear in any of the online Académie Française dictionaries until the eighth edition, which dates from the early 1930s. And the ninth edition suggests stop is derived from the English word.

The English “stop,” on the other hand, is very old, going back to Anglo-Saxon days. It comes from the Old English forstoppian (occurring only once) and is similar to words in other early Germanic languages.

By the way, the stop sign originated in the U.S. in 1915, according to Wikipedia, and went through various shapes and colors before settling on the familiar red-and-white octagon in 1954. Stop signs usually have the same shape and color all over the world, but the wording may differ from country to country. Signs in Latin America say “PARE” or “ALTO,” for example, while signs in China, Japan, Thailand, and the Arab countries use their own alphabets.

All the European Community countries, including France, have used the English word in stop signs since the 1970s, when road signs were standardized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. In Quebec and some other areas of Canada, the signs say “ARRÊT,” “STOP ARRÊT,” or “ARRÊT STOP.”

And now, I believe, it’s time to stop.

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