Indo-European Root of the Day: Stevedore


Watching season 2 of The Wire, which takes place largely at the Port of Baltimore, got me interested in the word stevedore. This is a fancy word for longshoreman, which itself is a fancy word for “guy who loads and unloads ship cargo.” Baltimore stevedores (that’s a fun thing to say) and their corrupt union practices are central to the show, and I wondered where such a unique word came from. We get the word from Spanish cognate estivador, which is the noun version of the verb estivar which means “to stow cargo.”

Take the word back far enough and we arrive at our IE root, steibh or steip. This root word means press or stick together – like packing cargo, individual parts or products put together for storage on a vessel. The word also carries a connotation of repetition and routine. The stevedores move containers from the ship and stack them in precise rows and columns on land. (Unless they’re working some side jobs for the Greeks and then things get a bit messy!)

In Latin the root becomes stip-, from which we get stipes, a tree trunk (how steibh came to mean this is mysterious), and stipare, compress. From Latin we get stiff, stipple (to paint a surface with tiny dots or marks over and over again (think Georges Seurat)), stipend (a regular fixed pay), stipulate, constipation (a whole different kind of stuck together), and, lastly, through Spanish, stevedore.

Su Tung P’o, “Spring Night”
Wendell Berry, “The Arrival”

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