The Grammarphobia Blog

Ego trips

Q: I recently came across “stroke their egos” in the Globe and Mail in Toronto. I always thought one “stokes” (i.e., feeds) an ego, not “strokes” it. I’d appreciate your opinion.

A: The more popular—and, in our opinion, the more idiomatic—version of the usage is “stroke one’s ego.” It’s also the one that makes more sense etymologically.

However, this usage is relatively new and may still be evolving, perhaps even evolving into two similar expressions with somewhat different meanings.

Although we’ve found a few examples of both “stroke” and “stoke” versions from the 1950s, “stroke” was the clear favorite by the time the usage caught on in the ’70s and ’80s.

Our feeling is that “stroke one’s ego” showed up first and that the “stoke” version was initially the result of an eggcorn, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase as another plausible word or phrase.

But we haven’t yet found evidence in searchable newspaper and literary databases to support this belief. In fact, the earliest example of the expression we could find uses “stoke,” not “stroke.” Here’s the story.

When the verb “stroke” entered Old English in the ninth century, it generally meant to run a hand softly over the head, body, or hair of a person or an animal “by way of caress or as a method of healing,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s translation (circa 897) of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I on the responsibilities of the clergy.

But in the early 1500s, the OED says, the verb “stroke” took on a new meaning—to soothe, flatter, or treat indulgently.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (circa 1610): When thou cam’st first / Thou stroakst me, & made much of me.”

In recent usage, Oxford says, “stroke” has added the sense of reassuring someone (say, a timid child) or manipulating somebody (perhaps a politician).

The OED doesn’t include the phrase “stroke one’s ego,” but its entry for the verb “stroke” cites this convoluted example from the March 1975 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:

“It’s Show Biz, man—a bunch a’ egomaniacal people using a captive audience to stroke themselves.”

We think that the expression “stroke one’s ego” is an extension of the soothing or flattering sense of the verb “stroke.”

Although the phrase “stoke one’s ego” also makes sense, it’s a somewhat different sense. Yes, we might “stoke” an ego to manipulate a politician or pep up an athlete, but we’d be more likely to “stroke” an ego to flatter a client or reassure a child.

The verb “stoke” (meaning to “feed, stir up, and poke the fire”) showed up in English in the 17th century, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto describes “stoke” as a back-formation, a term given to new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones—in this case the noun “stoker” (the guy who feeds a furnace).

Ayto says English borrowed “stoker” from a similar term in Dutch, where the verb stoken meant to put fuel into a furnace.

By the 18th century, according to the OED, the English verb “stoke” was being used figuratively in the sense of stoking or stirring up a controversy.

However, the OED has no examples of “stoke” used in the sense of flattering or treating indulgently.

As we’ve said, the expressions “stroke one’s ego” and “stoke one’s ego” both showed up in the 1950s.

The earliest example we could find of either one is this quote from an Oct. 22, 1952, editorial in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about wage controls:

“But whom are they going to fight to get the 40 cents a day for that milk while you stoke your ego by encouraging them to stay away from work?”

The earliest example we’ve found of the “stroke” version is from a publication about the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association’s 1954 convention. In discussing how to deal with behavioral psychologists, this advice is given:

“Deal with them on an equal basis, and appeal to their pride; stroke their egos, recognize their importance. Recognition, to a behavioristic psychologist, is the most important word in the profession. People want to be recognized.”

By the 1970s and ’80s, as we’ve mentioned above, “stroke one’s ego” was the predominant version the expression.

Here’s a “stroke” example from Cat Astrology, a 1976 book by Mary Daniels: “It’s actually very easy to get along with a Leo cat. Stroke his ego as much as his fur, call him your ‘King of Beasts,’ or your ‘Little Princess’ or ‘Movie Star.’ ”

And here’s a “stoke” example from a Feb. 24, 1986, article in the Glasgow Herald about Wallace Mercer, the flamboyant chairman of the Scottish soccer club team Heart of Midlothian: “Hearts may have benefited from having him front but it has also helped stoke his ego.”

In googling various versions of the expression (with “his,” “her,” “your,” and “their” egos being stroked or stoked), we’ve found that “stroke” is now clearly more popular than “stoke.”

Although the “stoke” version may have begun life as an eggcorn, some people (you, for example) are deliberately choosing “stoke” (to feed) over “stroke” (to soothe).

Could we be seeing the evolution of two similar expressions with somewhat different meanings? Only time will tell.

Check out our books about the English language