stun: c.1300, “to daze or render unconscious” (from a blow, powerful emotion, etc.), probably aphetic of O.Fr. estoner “to stun”
astound: 1600, from M.E. astouned, astoned (c.1300), pp. of astonien “to stun”
astonish: 1340, astonien, from O.Fr. estoner “to stun,” from V.L. *extonare, from L. ex- “out” + tonare “to thunder”; so, lit. “to leave someone thunderstruck.”
Although all three words derive from the same source, each has a different connotation in English.
Stun seems to carry the strongest emotional punch, perhaps because it has only one syllable, but also because it has a literal meaning. The other two words are always used figuratively. (I’ve never seen the word “astonish” used to describe the effect of a literal lightning strike.)
Astound and astonish suggest amazement, but the surprise engendered is not necessarily accompanied by the emotional pain suggested by the word stun.
He was astounded by the bureaucrat’s stupidity.
They were astonished by the magician’s illusions.
He was stunned by the unexpected death of his wife.
The following headlines and captions from the web got me thinking about these words:
Tendulkar stunned at his wax likeness
Israel stunned at US firmness on freezing settlements
Richard Dreyfuss Stunned at Natasha’s Accident
Twilight’s Lefevre ‘stunned’ at loss of role
Crowds Stunned at Jackson’s Death
What first caught my attention was the use of the preposition “at” after stun instead of the usual “by.”
The use of “at” instead of “by” has the effect of distancing the emotion. The metaphor is one of being hit over the head. One isn’t “stunned at a hammer,” but “stunned by a hammer.” One is stunned by bad news, not “at” it.
My second observation was that in at least two of the headlines, either astounded or astonished would have been the more appropriate choice. As a general rule, I’d save the word stun for a truly tragic context and use astound and astonish to convey extreme surprise.
As for the use of stunning in inappropriate contexts, here’s what David Auburn has to say in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (p. 861):
stunning is probably the most overused synonym for “very good,” especially in movie ads and book blurbs . . . Use of the word in this context has become not only an empty cliché, but also annoyingly counterintuitive: wouldn’t you be more likely to feel stunned by something bad than by something good?