• stifle •
stai-fêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, transitive
Meaning: 1. To choke, smother, strangle, suffocate, prevent breathing. 2. Restrain, repress, hold back, cut off, as 'to stifle one's indignation'. 3. (oneself) Shut up, be quiet.
Notes: This word is a common enough word. I selected it for its fascinating history (see Word History). Anyone or anything that stifles may be called a stifler. Back in the 19th century it was a very appropriate slang word for the gallows. The present participle may be used as an adjective or noun. We may speak of 'the stifling heat' or 'the stifling of the heat'.
In Play: When Archie Bunker didn't want to listen to his wife, Edith, he would tell her to stifle herself: "They say silence is golden, Edith, so stifle thyself!" However, the standard meaning of "cut off" is probably the most frequent: "Ivan Odor has a knack for stifling a conversation every time he opens his mouth."
Word History: I just love words like today's very good one; words that are borrowed back and forth between Germanic and Romance languages at various stages of development with different meanings and pronunciations. English borrowed stifle from Old French (e)stouffer "to stifle, smother" (Modern French étouffer). French borrowed the word from Old High German stopfon "to stop up, obstruct" (Modern German stopfen), the same source as English stop. Some old Germanic language may have borrowed this word from Vulgar Latin (the mother of all Romance languages) stuppare "to caulk" from stuppa "flax", a common material for caulking boats. Latin borrowed this word from Greek stuppe "flax". Where Greek got it is anybody's guess. (Lest we stifle the contributions of Diane Lyons, let us thank her now for today's Good Word.)
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