How did the speech disorder “stuttering” get its name, and what does it literally mean?

“The King’s Speech” garnered four golden statues at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, including the Oscar for Best Actor for Colin Firth’s riveting portrayal of King George VI. The film’s depiction of George VI’s lifelong struggle with stuttering has brought a renewed awareness to the speech disorder that affects over sixty-eight million people worldwide. What is the origin of this disorder and how did it get its name?

Stutter, or the Greek alalia syllabaris, is onomatopoeic – a word that suggests the sound that it describes – derived from the Middle English stutte or “stop.” The evolution of the word can be found in John Skelton’s 1529 verse: “Her fellow did stammer and stut.”

Stuttering is a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is fractured by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds and syllables. Stuttering is usually associated with verbal repetition; it is also defined as an irregular hesitation before speech – commonly referred to as “blocks.”  The disorder is believed to have its origin in both genetics and brain development. While the mechanisms of stuttering aren’t generally about the physical production of putting thoughts into words, the stress and anxiety experienced by a person may exacerbate the problem. The disorder is variable – in other words, depending on the situation, the stutter may be more or less severe.

Winston Churchill stuttered – as did Marilyn Monroe and James Earl Jones. Jazz musician Scatman John wrote the song “Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop)” to help children overcome stuttering.

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