Q&A: Stamping ground vs stomping ground

Is it stamping or stomping ground?
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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, we're stomp collecting…

Q: Hi AWC, I was recently back in my hometown. And I have a question.

A: Sorry, we don’t know why you’re still getting bullied by your old school.

Q: Ahhh no, it’s not that. I was writing about my experience and talking about it being “my old stomping ground” – but then someone else said it’s actually “stamping ground”. Who is correct?

A: Well, you both are.

Q: Ugh, not another one of THESE.

A: Yes sorry, English is the worst.

Q: Well is one of them at least MORE correct than the other?

A: Let’s unpack the definition first. According to Macquarie Dictionary, stamping ground refers to “the familiar haunts of a previous time in one's life, especially childhood.”

Q: Yep, that’s the one.

A: One is a little older than the other. “Stamping ground” came first, first printed in British English in 1821 – and it relates to an actual thing that animals do.

Q: I had no idea that animals collected stamps!

A: Hilarious. The word “stamp” had been around since the 1300s with the meaning of striking the foot downwards. In this case, it referred to animals like deer or even elephants that would return to an area to bed down, “stamping” the ground vegetation to make it more comfortable.

Q: Oh, okay, I also do that with my bed each night.

A: Really?

Q: I have a very lumpy mattress…

A: Right.

Q: So, when did “stomping ground” come along?

A: Well, “stomp” was already a popular US variation of “stamp” since 1803, so it didn’t take long for people to like the sound of a “stomping ground” also – becoming popular in the USA in the 1850s.

Q: While we’re on the subject, my cousin Phil collects stamps. How old are they?

A: The word “stamp” was first used to describe the pre-printed adhesive postal labels in 1837. It was later followed in the 1860s by the term “stamp collecting” – or “philately”.

Q: No, I haven’t seen Phil lately.

A: Huh?

Q: We lost touch. We used to collect stamps together. I guess I’d call THOSE places “stamping” grounds, am I right?

A: You’re very funny.

Q: So which phrase is the more popular?

A: It’s a mixed bag. Up until about 20-30 years ago, “stamping ground” had ruled the roost overwhelmingly. But since the 1990s, “stomping” has been, well, stomping all over its rival. And according to Google’s ngram data, in the last decade it has finally overtaken “stamping”, although both are still widely acceptable.

Q: So it’s a North America vs Britain thing?

A: Well, maybe it once was, but both versions are accepted everywhere now and it’s simply a matter of preference. North American dictionaries may put “stomping ground” as their main listing, while here in Australia it’s the opposite – but both places list (and use) the other variation too.

Q: So which one should *I* use?

A: This is one of those where it’s up to you. Unlike “champing at the bit” vs “chomping at the bit” where only the first one is correct (despite the latter being misused a lot), here you can choose either one.

Q: Well, I think I prefer “stomping ground”.

A: And that’s fine. You’re not wrong. Just be prepared for people who may try to stamp out your decision, as traditionally “stamping ground” was the “popular kid on campus”.

Q: Oh, just like me in high school then!

A: …

Q: …

A: Ahem. Well, anyway, the trick as always is to be consistent. This applies to stamping/stomping as well as whether you use singular or plural for “ground/s”.

Q: Thanks for that. I’m going to go and write my cousin Phil a letter to say hi. It’s been a while.

A: Wouldn’t a phone call or email be easier?

Q: He’ll appreciate the stamp…

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