All About “Sturdy”

The current meanings of sturdystout; strong; solidly built; hardy; and robust – have applied to people and animals all the way back to the time of Chaucer. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did the adjective begin to be used to describe structures and other material things; for example, in his serial novel Barnaby Rudge (1840-1841), Charles Dickens wrote of “wind and rain [that] seemed to shake that sturdy house to its foundation.”

So what became of the numerous additional meanings of sturdy, which, with their finer shadings, amounted to about twenty? In this shapeshifting adjective’s case, they simply followed language’s usual script and fell out of use.*

Definitions From Times Past  

Our modern-day definitions date back at least to the mid-sixteenth century. In his 1566 book The Order of Curing Horses Diseases, Thomas Blundeville wrote, “Weake, delicate and tender Horses may not be purged in such sort, as those that be of a strong sturdy nature.” (Blundeville was a mathematician who tackled subjects as varied as horsemanship, astronomy, and logic.) Yet in Blundeville’s day and age, strikingly different definitions of the adjective  included violent, ruthless, and cruel. English writer and critic George Puttenham wrote in The Arte of English Poesie (1589), “…to addresse and edifie the cruel and sturdy [violent?] courage of man.”

In the early seventeenth century sturdy described, among other things, a person or act considered rough, stern, or surly. The Oxford English Dictionary serves up this snatch of a quotation from The Historie of Greate Britain from Julius Caesar to King James (1611), written by mapmaker and historian John Speed: “…their sturdy [surly? stern?] behaviour and Lord-like carriage against the English.” Later in the century the word was also defined as rebellious and disobedient.

When John Bunyan wrote in Pilgrim’s Progress (1684), “They so balanced him being sturdy men at Arms, that they made him make a retreat,” his choice of sturdy  painted the men as either fierce in combat or impetuously brave, definitions of the word that had been in place for at least three centuries.

*For more Shapeshifter words, click here and here and here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *