Words

Stunning
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The Independent Online
Stunning

England's victory over the Dutch last Tuesday was described by many football fans, including Tony Blair, as "stunning". With three games still to win, it was as though we'd got the Euro-cup already, though if taken literally the word would mean that the nation had suffered a severe blow to the head, or at least been reduced to a state of stupefaction, and I dare say the result did have that effect on boozier citizens.

Walter Skeat thought stun came from the Anglo-Saxon for a loud noise, but the OED says it's from the French etonner, to gobsmack. In a sense they could both be right, since the French word is related to tonnerre, or thunder.

Anyway, it was always a metaphor for the amazement usually experienced at bad news, at defeats rather than victories. A standfirst in the Independent gave us two meanings in consecutive sentences: "The Dutch were stunned by it... . But no one who saw England's stunning victory will forget it."

That looked like sloppy writing, but it wasn't, because in a curious way the adjective stunning has become estranged from its verb, and has set up house on its own. There is no sense of the pole-axe about it as there is with stun. It makes us feel good, and is our automatic word for a nice bit of mountain scenery, or an attractive blonde. Tabloid newspapers have used it so often that attractive blondes no longer stun, but sizzle.

It seems odd that if you say something is stunning it means you're pleased, but if you say you're stunned by it you are unpleasantly surprised, but there it is.

The words diverged long ago and, by now, we should be used to them. The first "stunning girl" in the OED's citations dates from 1856.

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