What Does It Mean to Be Stumped?

21 January, 2017

And now the VOA Learning English program, Words and Their Stories.

Every word has its own story. What does it mean? Where did it come from? And how did it get into our language?

There are many stories of early settlers of America: the people who moved westward and opened up new territory. Many of these settlers were farmers who wanted a new home, a piece of land, some crops and cattle.

So, they moved west, cutting their way through difficult terrain, searching for a good place to live and farm. When they found it, they took out their axes and cut down trees. This was hard work. One of the hardest tasks was pulling up tree stumps from the ground.

This is a tree stump. But what does this have to do with being confused?
This is a tree stump. But what does this have to do with being confused?

And that's our word today -- "stump."

A tree stump is the part of a tree that remains in the ground after the tree is cut down. Stumps can also be the part of something such as a pencil that remains after the rest has been worn away.

Tree stumps gave these early American farmers big problems. Some stumps were so big that farmers had to use two or three horses to pull them out.

Stumps became part of life and part of the language. If someone asked a settler if they had cleared the land, they might answer: "Nope. I'm still stumped." This means they did not know how to get rid of the tree stumps from the ground.

And today, this meaning of the word is the same. To be stumped is to not know what to do or say. You are confused. You are blocked.

During the early days of America, the trees fell fast. The stumps remained for years. Sometimes they became part of the landscape. Some writers even wrote stories about tree stumps.

One day in 1716, a visitor named Ann Maury left the east coast to visit a so-called "stump town" in the west.

"I went into the middle of the town," she wrote. "And there, right in the center, surrounded by wooden buildings, was the great stump of a tree. I asked why this stump had not been pulled up. ‘Oh, we just never thought of it,' was the answer. ‘Besides,' the townspeople explained, ‘whenever one of the two chiefs has something to say, he stands upon this stump and is raised higher than the others. In this way, he can be heard better.'"

When George Washington became commander of all the colonial troops in 1775, he supposedly used stumps to talk to his troops.

In time, anyone who stood on a stump and spoke to the people became a "stump speaker." As we know, politicians like to speak to crowds. So, it wasn't long before "stump" entered politics.

Presidential candidates travel all over the country to explain their positions on issues to voters and try to win their support.

Jon Favreau was a speechwriter for President Barack Obama. He explained in an ABC news video that a stump speech is a candidate's "argument" for why he or she should be elected.

The speechwriter says that stump speeches contain everything a voter needs to know about where a candidate stands on issues important to that campaign.

He says that stump speeches are useful "campaign tools that they (politicians) can use on the road." They can simply reuse the same speech over and over or change it a little to fit each audience.

We also use "stump" as a verb. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines "stump" as to "go on a speaking tour during a political campaign." The site says that usage began in 1838.

These days, politicians are "stumping" when they go into their same old speech that they have given over and over and over again. So, it is no surprise that "stumping" used this way is often not a good thing.

And that is the end of Words and Their Stories. If this story has left you feeling stumped, write us a comment. We will help you figure it out!

I'm Anna Matteo.


Words in This Stories

stump n. the basal portion of a bodily part remaining after the rest is removed

terrain n. a geographic area : a piece of land : the physical features of a tract of land

axe n. a cutting tool that consists of a heavy edged head fixed to a handle with the edge parallel to the handle and that is used especially for felling trees and chopping and splitting wood