The Grammarphobia Blog

Stroke treatment

Q: Your recent article about stroking and stoking egos has inspired this question. How did the verb “stroke” come to mean caress while the noun “stroke” came to mean hitting? 

A: The word “stroke” has followed a long, twisted, and (as you’ve noticed) contradictory path since it evolved from its prehistoric Germanic roots.

Language scholars have reconstructed the ultimate source of “stroke” as strik- or straik-, an ancient Germanic base meaning to touch lightly.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says this prehistoric root also gave English the word “strike,” which is a clue to the evolution of “stroke.”

“The verb has stayed very close semantically to its source,” Ayto writes, “whereas the noun has followed the same path as its corresponding verb strike.”

As we noted in our earlier post, when the verb “stroke” entered Old English in the ninth century, it meant to run a hand softly over the head, body, or hair of a person or an animal. The verb has generally meant to caress—figuratively or literally—since then.

But when the noun “stroke” showed up (probably sometime before 1300, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology), it referred to the act of striking.

Over, the years, the noun has had many meanings, some that suggest striking and some caressing. Here’s a selection from the Oxford English Dictionary:

a blow with an ax (circa 1400), the striking of a clock (1436), a linear mark (1567), a pull of the oar (1583), a seizure (1599), a caress (1631), a movement of a pen (1683), a calamitous event (1686), the hitting of a ball (1744), a swimming movement (circa 1800), a stroke of luck (1853).

It’s time for us to break for lunch, so we’ll end with this example from one of our favorite novels, Doctor Thorne (1858), by Anthony Trollope: “He dressed himself hurriedly, for the dinner-bell was almost on the stroke as he entered the house.

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