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On the stump

Posted by Smokey Stover on October 16, 2008 at 15:12

In Reply to: On the stump posted by Rocky on October 16, 2008 at 09:10:

: I have a friend who is trying to find the origin of the phrase "on the stump".

Apparently, when the American colonists were disposed to engage in a bit of oratory, or get the attention of a group by speaking a little louder, they would try to find a convenient stump of a tree on which to stand. This became not only a literal, but also a figurative way of saying someone was campaigning for an issue or for a candidate (possibly himself). It soon gave rise to the verb, to stump for, or campaign for.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a good definition:

"14. Originally U.S. a. In early use, the stump (sense 2) of a large felled tree used as a stand or platform for a speaker. b. Hence, 'a place or an occasion of political oratory' (Cent. Dict.). to go on the stump, to take the stump: to go about the country making political speeches, whether as a candidate or as the advocate of a cause.
In the U.S. the word 'does not necessarily convey a derogatory implication' (Cent. Dict.). In Britain, though now common, it is still felt to be somewhat undignified.

The earliest example cited by the OED is from a 1775 broadside referring to George Washington. There was no U.S. at the moment, but its time was rapidly approaching.

The use of stump as a verb referring to electioneering was inevitable. THe OED cites a date of 1838.

;The nature of life in the colonies is interestingly illustrated by this use of "stump," both noun and verb. A large proportion of the colonists were engaged in agriculture and were busy spoiling the unspoilt wilderness by sawing down trees, which naturally left a great many stumps around. And since North America was not as urbanized as Great Britain, speechifying was a common open-air activity.

If your friend, Rocky, needs an early example of the phrase, you can mention the 1775 broadside* by a Boston Tory, with a message reading, in part: "Upon a stump he placed himself Great Washington did he." (It seems unlikely that Washington did his stumping from actual stumps, but politics were rough in 18th-century America. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.)

A broadside was a large sheet of paper printed on one side. It could be used for a variety of purposes, including transmitting political messages, often anonymous, and not infrequently scurrilous.