Q&A: “Stain” or “stained” glass?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, stay glassy, San Diego…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a very simple question this week. It’s about windows.

A: We’re not really great with computers, sorry.

Q: No, not that kind. I’m talking about colourful windows.

A: I think they call them Apple computers.

Q: No – the colourful ones like you see in church!

A: You really shouldn’t be taking computers into church…

Q: Okay, I’m going to start again. Windows. On a wall. Coloured glass. In a church. Are they called “stain glass windows” OR “stained glass windows”?

A: Aha! Good question.

Q: Most people seem to say it as “stain glass windows” but I’m thinking it could be just out of laziness.

A: There is a lot of that about. And you’re correct. 

Q: Correct about what? Them saying it right or being lazy?

A: Being lazy. The correct term is in fact “stained glass”. It makes more sense grammatically – “stained” is describing the state of the glass.

Q: Is it that simple?

A: It really is.

Q: Should it have a hyphen?

A: If it’s being used as an adjective, Macquarie Dictionary says that yes, it should. So you’d write “stained-glass windows” but then also “the window was made of stained glass” when it reverts to being a noun.

Q: Easy!

A: That said, the US Merriam-Webster dictionary lists examples of the adjective form “stained glass windows” with no hyphen. We’d still suggest you use it though.

Q: I suppose you essentially have an adjective (stained) inside another adjective (stained glass), right?

A: Yeah, and the hyphen avoids ambiguity. For example, if you wrote “stained glass doors”, that could mean your glass doors had become stained with water or coffee or lipstick

Q: Lipstick?

A: They’re very attractive glass doors.

Q: Uh huh.

A: In the same example, “stained-glass doors” makes it much clearer that it’s the beautifully coloured glass.

Q: Got it. So was it just me that finds STAIN vs STAINED confusing?

A: Not at all! In fact, even Australia’s foremost broadcaster, the ABC, gets it wrong here in this short video… calling it “STAIN GLASS” on more than one occasion.

Q: How old is the term “stained glass”?

A: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it is first recorded as being used in 1791. Of course, that’s simply the name for it – the practice had been taking place in Europe since the 10th century. 

Q: So why not just use the term “coloured glass”?

A: Well, according to people who know a lot more about this stuff—

Q: Glass half-full people? 

A: Haha, yes them. According to them, the term comes from the silver stain that was added to the outer side of a window. When fired, the silver stain would turn yellow or gold – forming other colours when with different metal oxide combinations.  

Q: Fancy! Everyone must have loved it!

A: Well, not EVERYONE. In the mid-16th century, King Henry VIII and his sidekick Thomas Cromwell wanted a loophole to allow themselves to remarry, so they went and established the Church of England (today known as the Anglican Church) to break away from the Catholic Church. 

Q: Awkward. So they left their church so they could leave their wives?

A: Yeah, and because nobody wants pictures of their ex on display (in this case, their church), they ordered all the destruction of many stained-glass windows. It actually saw the practice die out until it was revived in the early 1800s.

Q: So that’s why they didn’t bother with a term till then!

A: Exactly.

Q: So to recap, it’s “stained glass” not “stain glass” – and if you’re treating the term as an adjective in front of “windows” etc, add a hyphen.

A: That’s it!

Q: Okay, I’m off to visit my grandmother. She’s 104 and has never needed glasses.

A: Wow really? What’s her secret?

Q: She drinks straight from the bottle!

A: …


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