Q: I hear the words “stanch” and “staunch” used interchangeably. Is this correct? Do you prefer one over the other?
A: “Stanch” and “staunch” are both legitimate words, but they’re not quite interchangeable. In modern usage, one is generally used as a verb and the other as an adjective.
Usage guides by and large prefer “stanch” as the verb meaning to stop or restrain a flow (as in “We managed to stanch the blood”).
“Staunch” is considered preferable as the adjective meaning loyal or steadfast (as in “He’s been a staunch supporter”).
As you mention, however, the two words are often used interchangeably, though “staunch” is more popular, with four times as many hits as “stanch” on Google.
Both words appeared in English in the 14th century as verbs and in the 15th century as adjectives.
They were adapted from the Old French estanchier (to quench) and estanche (watertight), which in turn came from a word in the Common Roman dialect, stancare (to dam up).
Centuries ago, “stanch” and “staunch” were used interchangeably, though over the course of history they’ve taken on different functions, along with their different spellings and pronunciations.
But even today, there’s a lot of crossover in their usage. In fact, modern dictionaries list each spelling as an acceptable variant of the other.
But, as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says in a Usage Note, “Staunch is more common than stanch as the spelling of the adjective. Stanch is more common than staunch as the spelling of the verb.”
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