Wood on Words: Stop, inspect your stock before the new year
The day after the Christmas stockings came down, people were in the stores stocking up.
Now comes the annual tradition of taking stock of our lives and promising to do better, at least in some areas.
“Stock” is indeed a versatile word.
Its first few definitions in Webster’s are linked with the plant world, a reflection of its original meaning of “a stick.” A “stock” can be a tree trunk, “a plant stem into which a graft is inserted,” “a plant from which cuttings are taken” or “an underground plant stem,” sometimes known as a “rootstock.”
It’s also part of the name of some members of the crucifer family, like “evening stock.”
This batch of stocks also gives us “stocky” for “heavily built, sturdy, short and thickset,” in other words, built like a tree trunk; “stock-still” for “perfectly motionless” — trees don’t move much; “stockish” for “like a block of wood,” which also goes beyond physical characteristics to “stupid, dull, thickheaded”; and “stockade,” a fortress or military prison, from the original design using stakes driven into the ground to form a defensive barrier.
It’s a short step in word evolution from trees to family trees, where “stock” can mean “a line of descent,” the “original progenitor” of such a line, or a resulting “strain, race or other related group.”
This is where all the “livestock” terms come from, including “stockman” and “stockyard.”
The trunk concept also leads to the use of stock as “a supporting or main part,” as the handle of a weapon (a “gunstock”) or of an implement. The informal “lock, stock and barrel” for “completely, entirely” is derived from the main parts of a gun.
From the butt of a gun we also get the butt of jokes in “laughingstock.”
“The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories” says the use of “stock” for “store, fund” began in late Middle English and is of obscure origin, although it isn’t too hard to imagine a transition from keeping track of animals to keeping track of other goods. For merchants, “stock” became the stuff in a store instead of the creatures in the field.
The commercial chore of taking inventory has given us several useful phrases with general applications as well, including “in stock,” “out of stock,” “take stock” and “take (or put) stock in.”
This is also where we get “stockroom,” “stockpile” and “stock in trade.” That last one also has taken on a broader meaning of “any resources, practices or devices characteristically employed by a given person or group.”
The “stocks” we associate with Wall Street seem to come from terms of debt, which certainly seems appropriate. There are “stockbrokers” and “stockholders,” “stock dividends” and “stock options,” “stock certificates” and “stock splits,” and the “stock exchange” and “stock market.”
There are also “stock companies,” but some of them are theatrical enterprises offering “a repertoire of plays, usually at one theater.”
And I haven’t even touched on stock as a type of paper, “stockpots” or “stock cars.”
There’s just enough room for this stock phrase of the season: Happy New Year.
Barry Wood is a senior copy editor at the Rockford Register Star. Contact him at email@example.com.