Stunned, Astounded and Astonished

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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?

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4 thoughts on “Stunned, Astounded and Astonished”

  1. Maeve,

    About being stunned at news. Being stunned by a hammer would be similar to being “stoned” as in the sense of being punished by a thrown rock. The hammer would require an action to cause a stun. That is, one might deliver a blow using a hammer to make the blow more intense (than, say, a bare hand or stalk of celery); the blow would then be the cause of the stun. Such a stun would be more intense than a distraction. The recipient of such a blow would be incapable of thought for measurable seconds or longer. Stun implies a state more active than unconscious, yet absent of constructive or directed thought.

    Being stunned by a hammer would overlook the details of the hammer being acted upon, the resulting blow, and the fact that it is the effects of the blow, the impact of the hammer with the recipient, that results in the stunning impact. Presumably the blow would also result in bodily injury, in addition to the stunning effect on the thinking processes.

    A stun to the thinking processes resulting from observing something, or hearing some information, though, might not be the result of another’s actions. I could imagine that the stun to thinking processes would be at the existence of an external factor, rather than by the action of an external factor or person.

    Should grammar and philosophy tend to agree? Should the correctness of “stunned at” or “stunned by” be related to whether the cause is a metaphorical or physical action, or whether the cause is a discovery of something intense and surprising? Or am I lost in the information density of the poetical and in subtle intimations again?

    May I be permitted to think the degree of disruption of the thinking process described as a stun as similar to the result of stoning? Then I would posit astonishment and astoundment to be a lesser degree of disruption to the thinking process. That is, astonish implies a major distraction of thought, as one’s attention is caught by beauty, by immensity of scope, or surprising juxtaposition of one’s surroundings and companions. Astound would be closer to stunned – a mild disruption of the train of thought just a bit more intense than mere distraction.

    As you point out, anything less dramatic than a person lying disoriented on the floor would be using these terms to perfect hyperbole.

  2. I would think that there is one more difference between “Stun” and the other two verbs; though I must admit that I have no evidence for the same.

    Stun, to me indicates a situation where the person concerned was unable to show any reaction (at least momentarily), whereas Astound or astonish indicates a surprise which is also accompanied by an approrpriate (and perhaps exaggerated) reaction.

    I would like to know how valid and correct this observation is.

  3. On being found in flagrente, the interloper said “Sir, I am surprised. You are astonished”.

    Can’t remember the source, but for some reason it sticks.

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