How staunch are you on this issue?

I cut myself shaving the other day and had a real bleeder. (I use a double-edged safety razor*, which gives me a much cleaner shave and fewer cuts that a cartridge, but when I do cut myself, it can be a doozy.) I was sticking some tissue to the cut to stop the bleeding, and it reminded me of an entry in the Associated Press Stylebook:

  • stanch, staunch: Stanch is a verb: He stanched the flow of blood. Staunch is an adjective: She is a staunch supporter of equality.

The AP Stylebook is intended as a quick reference for journalists that helps them be correct and consistent on deadline. Sometimes, though, that means a loss of nuance, as I found to be the case with stanch and staunch when I began looking them up.

The American Heritage Dictionary hints that the distinction is not so absolute in a usage note under its entry for staunch:

  • Staunch is more common than stanch as the spelling of the adjective. Stanch is more common than staunch as the spelling of the verb.

But it doesn't say that reversing that is wrong.

Before we go farther, here are the AHD definitions of the adjective:

  • 1. Firm and steadfast; true. See synonyms at faithful.
  • 2. Having a strong or substantial construction or constitution.

And the verb:

  • 1. To stop the flowing of, as blood; to check; also, to stop the flowing of blood from; as, to stanch a wound.
  • 2. To extinguish; to quench, as fire or thirst. Obsolete.

With the AHD not really clearing things up, I went to my Garner's Modern American Usage, which had this to say:

  • staunch, stanch: Staunch is preferable as the adjective, stanch as the verb. But in practice the adjective is sometimes undesirably used as a verb. This verbal use of staunch is far more common in British English than American English.

So Garner isn't as absolute as the AP, but he does pass judgment that agrees with it. Then I checked my brand-new Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage:

  • stanch, staunch: Fowler 1926 observed that the verb is usually spelled stanch and the adjective staunch. That observation stills holds true today. The verb and adjective are both derived from the Old French estancher, meaning "to stop the flow of; stanch." The two spelling variants have been in reputable use for centuries, and they are standard for both the verb and the adjective. (Emphasis added by TWTM.)

Merriam-Webster shows itself to be the free thinker on this issue: here's what most people do, but whatever you want to do is cool with me, man.

I like the idea of having two separate words that mean two different things, and I will probably maintain the distinction in my own writing. But it's interesting to know that, as is often the case,  a "rule" like the one about stanch and staunch isn't as hard and fast as I was taught.

As mentioned in the Merriam-Webster entry, the words have a common etymology. Here's the AHD's version:

  • From the Middle English stanchen, from the Old French estanchier, from Vulgar Latin stanticāre, meaning to stop, probably from the Latin stāns, stant-, the present participle of stāre, meaning to stand

* For any shaving geeks out there, I use the razor handle pictured, a Merkur #33C, most recently with Feather blades from Japan.