Q: I remember reading a book by Wilfred Funk that says the verb “stink” was once a compliment. That has got me into some trouble of late. Could you please clear this up for me?
A: In Six Weeks to Words of Power (1955), the lexicographer and publisher Wilfred J. Funk writes: “In the days of long ago the phrase that rose stinks meant that its odor was pleasant. You stink was a compliment.”
That’s right, more or less. For a few hundred years in Anglo-Saxon times, the verb meant simply to give off an odor. The odor could be pleasant, disgusting, or something in between.
That old sense is now obsolete, and it would be considered offensive today to tell someone—your sweetheart, for example—that she stinks.
When the verb showed up in Old English in the early 700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “to emit a smell or vapour of any kind; to smell (sweetly or otherwise).”
The earliest OED example for this sense—from an Anglo-Saxon glossary dated at around 725—translates flagrans, Latin for “smelling” or “sweet smelling,” as stincendi, Old English for “stinking.”
The dictionary’s next example is from a grammar written around 1000 by the Benedictine scholar and abbot Ælfric of Eynsham: “Ic stince swote” (“I stink sweetly”). This is the only example in the OED for “stink” used in a positive sense to refer to a person.
A third citation is from the Ormulum, a biblical commentary by the medieval monk Orm: “To strawwenn gode gresess þaer Þatt stunnkenn swiþe swete” (“To strew good grasses there that stink very sweetly”). A question mark in front of the citation suggests that the OED may be uncertain about the date. The dictionary dates it at around 1200, while some scholars believe it was written as early as the mid-1100s.
As Ælfric was finishing his grammar, which was used to teach Latin to Old English speakers at the turn of the 11th century, the verb “stink” began losing its pleasant or neutral senses. By the late Old English or early Middle English periods, only the negative sense of “stink” seems to have survived.
Used negatively, according to the OED, the verb “stink” meant “to emit a strong offensive smell; to smell foully.” The dictionary’s first citation is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies and prayers dated from around 1000: “Eal se lichoma stincð fule” (“That corpse stinks quite foully”).
The next example, dated around 1200, is from a document in the Trinity Cambridge Manuscript: “stincð fule for his golnesse” (“stinks foully due to his lasciviousness”).
And here’s one from Mirk’s Festial, a collection of homilies for the liturgical festivals, by John Mirkus, an Augustinian canon: “How his brethe stinkyth.” (The OED dates Mirk’s Festial at around 1450, but some scholars say it may have been written as early as the 1380s.)
The verb “stink” is ultimately derived from the reconstructed West Germanic term stiŋkwan, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. Ayto notes that another form of the prehistoric term, stiŋkw-, gave English the word “stench.”
By the time the noun “stink” showed up in the 14th century, according to the OED, the word was clearly negative, and meant “a foul, disgusting, or offensive smell”—that is, a stench. The first example in the dictionary—”The stynk of hym”—is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.
Over the years, the verb and noun took on several other meanings, including “to be abhorrent” (1303), as in “His money stinks”; “a row or fuss” (1819), as in “Don’t make a stink about it”; and “to be incompetent” (1934), as in “I stink at tennis.”
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