v. (past)

Gaw stemedWA stempmys

(1)  ‘debated (with himself/themselves)’; (2) ‘stopped, halted; stood about, hesitated’ (Modern English stem)


Two sources for the v. at Gaw 230 (‘He stemmed, and con studie / Quo walt þer most renoun’) and 1117 (‘Þay stoden and stemed and stylly speken’) have been proposed, both usually derived from ON (but with a good case to be made for a native etymon as well in the second, more likely, case): (1) OED (followed by PS only at Gaw 230) identifies these two Gaw instances with its stem v.1, which it renders tentatively ‘?to debate with (oneself)’ and otherwise cites only from WA and Cursor. The suggested etymon is the ON v. represented by OIcel stefna, stemna in the sense ‘to give notice to one, summon; cite (a case); call together (of a meeting)’; cp. MLG stevenen ‘to summon’, and perh. also with late OE stefnian in the same sense (though this latter has been accounted for as a loan from ON, see further SPS). These forms have usually been understood as a derivation on PGmc *steƀnō ‘voice’, but they could equally well be connected with OIcel stefna (stemna) ‘direction, appointed meeting; summons, citation’ < PGmc *staƀnjōn, and with a number of formally and semantically close words which have probably influenced one another in the course of their evolution. The ON reflexes of these words all show variation between /fn/ and /mn/ (see further steuen), and so the presence of -m(m)- in these ME forms is not incompatible with derivation from an ON variant stemna and in fact more plausible than derivation from a native cognate OE stefnian even if there is only one isolated ME spelling in <mpm> which might point more clearly to an etymon containing a consonant cluster. Semantically, this theory is more problematic, requiring the development of an ON v. meaning basically ‘to summon’ (attested with reference to the public calling together of people, or the (re)counting of evidence) to (in OED’s terms) a ME v. signifying the rather more personal, internal ‘to debate with (oneself)’. MED retains a v. stemmen v.1, with the same etymology (citing it only three times, all from WA, while explaining the Gaw words as in (2) below), and here the semantic leap is still greater, to ‘to consider, think’. The evidence for any such v. in ME with this kind of sense, however, is vanishingly thin (see further Dance). We can therefore perhaps do without positing a ME v. stemmen ‘to think’ (etc.) at all. (2) All other authorities since Knigge (76; incl. Kullnick 17, TGD, GDS, MED, McGee 351, Nagano 1966: 64), instead identify the two Gaw instances of stemmed with ME stemmen ‘to stop, halt; stand about, tarry’ (etc.) (MED’s stemmen v.2, PDE stem), which makes good sense in both contexts. It is generally derived from the ON v. represented by OIcel stemma ‘to stem, stop, dam up (esp. of a stream or fluid)’ (cp. MHG stemmen and late OE (Nhb) forestemman ‘to prevent, prohibit, hinder’).  Most modern authorities derive these verbs from the root of the widely attested PGmc adj. *stamma- (as in Go stamms, OIcel stammr, OE stam, OHG stam ‘stammering’). In that case, the existence of an OE *stemman is quite plausible and may well lie behind the late Nhb v. forestemman, if this is not itself an early derivation (adding fore- as the standard Nhb gospel gloss equivalent for Lat pro-) on a loan from ON stemma

PGmc Ancestor

(1) *steƀnō or *staƀnjōn; (2) *stamm-

Proposed ON Etymon (OIcel representative)

(1) stefna, stemna ‘to stand in a certain direction, aim at; to give notice to one, summon; cite (a case); call together (of a meeting)’; (2) stemma ‘to stem, stop, dam up (esp. of a stream or fluid)’
(ONP (1) stefna (2) (vb.); (2) stemma (2) (vb.))

Other Scandinavian Reflexes

(1) Far stevna, Icel stefna, Norw stemna, Dan stævne, Sw stämma; (2) Far stemma, Icel stemma, Norw stemma, Dan stemme, Sw stämma

OE Cognate

(2) *stemman (cp. Nhb forestemman ‘to prevent, prohibit, hinder’)

Phonological and morphological markers

Summary category



(1) For the possible attestations of a ME v. stemmen in this sense, see etymological discussion (1); MED records only three instances, all from WA, but these are all open to alternative explanations. (2) For stemmen v.2, MED has a handful of citations starting with a1400(a1325) Cursor (Vsp A.3), and mainly N.

Occurrences in the Gersum Corpus

Gaw 230, 1117; WA 2960, 5301

WA attests three formally indistinguisable verbs, which may or may not be identical with each other. The instances of the v. <stemes> at 2960 ('he studis & he stuynes, he steme within') and 5301 (' Þan stemes he with, þe stoute kyng, & stiggis with his name'), given the senses and, in the first instance, collocation with study (as TPD 2605n note), are probably to be identified with the v. as in Gaw (so Skeat WA). See also stem (v.).


MED stemmen (v.2) , OED stem (v.1) , HTOED , Dance stemmed; (1) MED stemmen (v.1) , de Vries stefna (7), Mag. stefna (2), Orel *steƀnjanan, AEW stefnian, SPS 457–8; (2) OED stem (v.2) , de Vries stemma, Mag. stemma (1), Heid. stamma-, Orel *stammjanan, Kroonen *stamma-, DOE fore~stemman