The Grammarphobia Blog

We’re not stymied

Q: I heard a word the other day that I hadn’t heard in years—“stymie.” I also seem to remember that Stymie was a Kentucky Derby winner. Is the horse the source of the word?

A: No, the word “stymie” doesn’t come from the name of the chestnut that won quite a few races in the 1940s (though not the Derby). However, “stymie” does have a sporting pedigree.

In golf, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), a “stymie” refers to a situation “in which an opponent’s ball obstructs the line of play of one’s own ball on the putting green.”

When the word entered English in the early 1800s, it referred to a now-defunct rule in golf. This is how the original “stymie” is described in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“An opponent’s ball which lies on the putting green in a line between the ball of the player and the hole he is playing for, if the distance between the balls is not less than six inches.”

In singles match play, according to the old rule, a golfer had to putt around (or perhaps over) a stymie. The old rule was abandoned in 1952, allowing a golfer to pick up the obstructing ball regardless of distance.

The OED’s earliest citation for the noun is from the 1834 rules of the Musselburgh Golf Club in Scotland: “With regard to Stimies the ball nearest the hole if within six inches shall be lifted.”

The verb, which showed up two decades later, originally meant to “put (one’s opponent or oneself) into the position of having to negotiate a stymie.”

Oxford’s first citation for the verb is from an 1857 monograph about golf: “The ball stimying may be lifted if within six inches of that of the player, until the stroke is done.”

By the early 1900s, the OED says, the verb was being used figuratively in the sense of to “impede, obstruct, frustrate, thwart (a person, an activity, or a project).”

The first citation for “stymie” used this way is from The Girl Proposition, a Bunch of He and She Fables (1902), by George Ade: “In about 8 minutes he had the Regular Fellow stymied and Hazel was leaning against him.”

Where does “stymie” come from? The OED suggests that it’s derived from the Scottish term stymie, meaning “One who does not see well.”

American Heritage adds that it might ultimately come from another Scottish term, styme, as in the phrase “to se nocht ane styme, not to see a glimmer (of something).”

We’ll end with an example from Mulliner Nights, a 1933 collection of short stories by one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse: There came the shrill cry of a Hunting Bishop stymied by a hat-stand.”

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