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Where is “put” in “stay put”?

Q: My daughter was in the Northeast during the recent snowstorm and I asked her if she was planning to stay put. That got me to thinking: where is put?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “stay put” as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the mid-19th century.

The OED defines the verbal phrase as meaning “to remain where or as placed; to remain fixed or steady; also fig. (of persons, etc.).”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary is from the Sept. 23, 1843, issue of the New Mirror, a weekly journal in New York: “And now we have put her in black and white, where she will ‘stay put.’ ”

The usage apparently raised eyebrows in its early days. John Russell Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), describes it as a “vulgar expression”—that is, a common one.

In Haunted Hearts, an 1864 novel by Maria Susanna Cummins, the expression refers to a thing: “This curl sticks right out straight; couldn’t you put this pin in for me, so that it would stay put?”

James Russell Lowell, uses it to refer to a person in his 1871 essay collection My Study Windows: “He has a prodigious talent, to use our Yankee phrase, of staying put.”

Where, you ask, is put?

The OED doesn’t explain the origin of the usage, and we couldn’t find an explanation in any of our usual language references.

But there may be a clue in Oxford’s definition of the phrase: “to remain where or as placed.”

If we had to guess, we’d say the verbal phrase originally meant something like “to stay where someone or something is put,” or “to stay where one puts oneself.”

However, an idiomatic expression like “stay put” doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, as we’ve mentioned several times on the blog, including in a posting a couple of years ago. In other words, there may be no “where” there.

The word “put,” by the way, is one of the commonest English verbs, but its source is uncertain, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says it goes back to an Old English word, putian, “never actually recorded but inferred from the verbal noun putung ‘instigation,’ but where that comes from is not known.”

He speculates that putung “was presumably related to Old English potian ‘push, thrust,’ whose Middle English descendant pote formed the basis of Modern English potter.” (Think of that, next time you find yourself pottering in the garden.)

In case you’re curious, the golfing term “putt” as well as the track-and-field term “shot put” are descended from that same uncertain source.

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