The Grammarphobia Blog

A doozy of an etymology

Q: Do you have any information on the word “ripstaver”?

A: A “ripstaver” is an impressive person or thing—a beaut, a corker, a crackerjack, a doozy, a humdinger, a knockout, a lollapalooza, a jim-dandy, or a ripsnorter.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the early 19th century and is now archaic.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from an 1828 issue of the Bower of Taste, a short-lived magazine in Boston: “She beheld him striding down the street, lustily exclaiming to himself, ‘She’s a ripstaver, so help me Davy Rachel!’ ”

The dictionary’s next citation is from the anonymously published Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett of West Tennessee (1833): “In ten minutes he yelled enough, and swore I was a ripstavur.”

Although the OED describes the usage as archaic, it has three 20th-century citations, including this one from Maggie: A Love Story, a 1993 memoir by the author John B. Sanford about his marriage to the screenwriter Maggie Roberts:

“That was one ring-tailed roarer he singled out, and no mistake, a regular rip-staver, a pure jim-dandy.”

The dictionary says the noun “ripstaver” is derived from two verbs: “rip” (to tear in a forceful way) and “stave” (to break up a cask into staves). The later noun “staver” (1860) refers to an energetic person—that is, one who is continually staving about.

The phrasal verb “stave off” now means to hold off or repel. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) gives this example from the New York Times:

“For 12 years, we’ve sought to stave off this ultimate threat of disaster.”

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