While answering another question, I read through the Online Etymology Dictionary's entry on steer:

steer (v.)
"guide the course of a vehicle," Old English steran (Mercian), stieran (West Saxon), from Proto-Germanic *steurijanan (cf. Old Norse styra, Old Frisian stiora, Dutch sturen, Old High German stiuren, German steuern "to steer," Gothic stiurjan "to establish, assert"), related to *steuro "a rudder, a steering" (cf. Old English steor "helm, rudder," German Steuer and first element in starboard), from PIE *steu-ro- (cf. Greek stauros "stake, pole"), from root *sta- "to stand" (see stet).

The notion is of a stiff, upright pillar or post used in steering. To steer clear of in the figurative sense of "to avoid completely" is recorded from 1723. Related: Steered; steering. Steering committee in the U.S. political sense is recorded from 1887.

steer (n.)
"young ox," Old English steor "bullock," from Proto-Germanic *steuraz (cf. Old Saxon stior, Old Norse stjorr, Swedish tjur, Danish tyr, Middle Dutch, Dutch, German stier, Gothic stiur "bull"), perhaps from PIE *steu-ro-, a root denoting "strength, sturdiness" (see taurus).

So, both the verb and the noun are traced back to the same Proto Indo-European root meaning "strength, sturdiness". The etymology I have posted does not link the two beyond suggesting that they have independently arisen from the same root.

This kind of convergent evolution goes very much against my training as a biologist which has taught me to look for the most parsimonious explanation of an observed lineage. In this case, that would be to have one sense of the term develop from the other. At the time when these words entered English, the only things people could steer (drive) were various types of boats and carts. Carts which were often pulled by oxen, by steers.

I would guess that steering as a verb developed from driving steer drawn carts. Is there any evidence for my suggestion or am I just spinning pretty stories?

  • 8
    Now THAT'S a well-written question! Bravo! :-) Jul 5, 2013 at 18:27
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    Well ... the guy who maneuvers the boat is called a "steersman" and the guy who maneuvers the oxcart is called a "driver". Jul 5, 2013 at 18:50
  • 5
    Does that mean passengers who travel steerage (with the cheapest tickets) are treated like cattle? Jul 5, 2013 at 20:23
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers of course, and steering a boat means provisioning it with meat for a journey. :)
    – terdon
    Jul 6, 2013 at 2:34
  • 1
    I'm afraid "...the most parsimonious explanation of an observed lineage. In this case, that would be to have one sense of the term develop from the other" may not apply to languages, esp., the English language. And steer is not an exceptional case.
    – Kris
    Jul 8, 2013 at 6:20

5 Answers 5


Ah, I see I should have read more closely.
I actually did some research that touches on this.

The ST- assonance (initial consonant cluster) has a long and varied and surprisingly coherent phonosemantic history, dating from a pre-Proto-Indo-European era.

I tripped over ST- while trying to figure out what style meant, in a paper on metaphors, for a literary journal named Style. As usual, there was a lot more stuff going on than I had expected.

The paper is called "Style Stands Still", and I see no reason to reproduce it here, since it's online. (The stuff about ST- starts on page 8, but it's built on the context of the first part; the paper is 20 pages long, with bibliography).

EDIT: By request, a brief excerpt from the paper:

Figure 1. st-initial PIE roots, with some reflexes in Modern English
Source: Watkins (2000), Pokorny (1959)

  • *stā- ‘To stand, with derivatives meaning “place or thing that is standing”’ (Pok sta- 1004)
    style, stand, steed, stud, stay, stage, stamen, standard, stem, station, stasis, static, status, stable, stoic, store, stylite, steer
  • *steigh- ‘To stride, step, rise’ (Pok steigh- 1017)
    stile, stirrup, stickle, distich, acrostic
  • *steu- ‘To push, stick, knock, beat’ (Pok 2. steu- 1025)
    stub, steeple, stoop, stutter, stock, stoke, steep
  • *stel- ‘To put, stand; with derivatives referring to a standing object or place’ (Pok 3. stel- 1019)
    stolon, stalk, stele, stilt, pedestal, stolid, stall, stout
  • *ster- ‘Stiff’ (Pok 5. ster- 1029)
    stare, starch, stork, starve, stark, stern, strut, start, stark, startle
  • *stebh- ‘Post, stem; to support, place firmly on, fasten’ (Pok steb(h)- 1011)
    stoop, staff, staple, stump, stamp, stomp, stave
  • *steip- ‘To stick, compress’ (Pok steib(h)- 1015)
    stubble, stiff, stipple
  • *steg- ‘Pole, stick’ (Pok 2. (s)teg- 1014)
    stake, stack, stagger
  • *stegh- ‘To stick, prick; pointed’ (Pok stegh- 1014)
    stair, stick, sting, stigma, stimulate, stag

There is a strong family resemblance among the roots here. Indeed, on perusing this list, one finds a persistent cognitive image building up, with at least the following four significant perceptual properties:

Figure 2. Cognitive semantic properties of st-initial PIE roots

  1. One-Dimensional: The image has only one salient major dimension
  2. Vertical: That dimension is situated in an up-and-down orientation
  3. Strong: The image displays rigidity, stability, and physical integrity
  4. Still: The image is either unmoving, or frozen in motion


Not all of the characteristics in Figure 2 will be true of every Modern English word that comes from the roots in Figure 1, but some combination of the features applies to them all. For instance, although the Modern English words stamen, stile, steeple, stalk, stork, staff, stake, and stick each come from a different PIE root, all of them refer either to long rigid objects or to things characterized by such, mostly vertically oriented, and often supporting, attached, or applied to other structures by their ends. For that matter, they tend to apply to any Modern English word beginning with st-, no matter where it comes from.

  • 1
    I'm sure it'll make a good read, but would you be so good as to reproduce a brief expert that tells us about these steer? (I infer that you're saying they're related through 'ST', in a way that stretches further back than the OP mentions.)
    – hunter2
    Jul 11, 2013 at 9:41
  • 2
    OK, brief excerpt now added. Jul 11, 2013 at 15:24
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    Well, semantic traits are not the same kind of thing as biological traits, and don't follow the same rules of parsimony. They're more like flavors than organs, though most of the same constraints like geographic separation and diversification in the pool work the same way, so the results are broadly comparable. Reconstructions are just that; reconstructions, not data. Formulae that describe coherent matrices in a multi-dimensional relational space. Linguists are used to abbreviating this, but if you study Pokorny and Buck -- especially Buck -- you see how it works. Jul 12, 2013 at 3:48
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    "Buck" = Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, University of Chicago Press 1949, 1987. Jul 12, 2013 at 3:51
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    So, what you're saying is that my suggestion is possible but cannot be proven one way or the other because of the lack of necessary data?
    – terdon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 14:34

First, though I can't think of any examples, I'm sure there are other words that demonstrate a single root following a divergent evolution in meaning. Biological Evolution and Language Evolution are entirely different things. Language evolves for many reasons, not all of which are necessarily logical or logically necessary.

According to the OED online:

Steer, v.1
Etymology: Common Germanic: Old English stíeran = Old Frisian stiura , Middle Low German stûren , (Middle) Dutch sturen , stíeren , Old High German, Middle High German stiuren (modern German steuern ), Old Norse stýra (Swedish, Norwegian styra , Danish styre ) < Germanic *steurjan , < *steurō rudder, steer n.2


Steer, n.1
Etymology: Old English stéor (masculine) = Middle Low German stêr, Middle Dutch, Dutch stier, Old High German stior (Middle High German, modern German stier), Gothic stiur < Germanic type *steuro-z < pre-Germanic *(s)teuro-s, < Indogermanic root *st(h)eu- to be fixed or rigid; the form without s is represented by Old Norse þjór-r (Swedish tjur, Danish tyr).
According to some the word goes back to an Indogermanic *sthewəro- (Sanskrit sthavira) stout. Connection with Greek ταῦρος, Latin taurus, and their cognates is doubtful.

Also, the earliest textual example of the verb 'to steer' that I found in the OED was dated 888 and meant

3. trans. In extended sense, to guide something that is in motion. In various applications.
a. To guide (a chariot, a horse, cattle, etc.).

Finally, from steer, n.1

a. A young ox, esp. one which has been castrated.In the United States, Australia, etc., applied to male beef-cattle of any age. [earliest textual example 700]

My immediate inclination, however, is not to assume anything from this etymology. Rather I would point out that most every definition that the OED gives for Steer, v.1 is directly related to boats and rudders and that humans have surely been steering boats for only slightly longer than they have been driving steer. However, given the first definition for steer specifically indicates a young ox... I'd venture a guess at the nautical term being the precursor.


Following Tim's comment above.. I'm even more convinced it's nautical. As you can see above the root essentially means fixed or rigid...

The etymological sense of the word [Starboard] refers to the mode of steering the early Germanic ships, by means of a paddle worked over the right side of the vessel. The left or larboard side, to which the steersman turned his back, was in several Germanic languages called ‘back-board’,

which would seem to indicate that the 'fixed or rigid' board by which they directed the ship was used to steer.

  • Actually there is a surprising level of similarity between the two "evolutions". Biological evolution is most certainly not always logical, nor necessary, just like language evolution. Obviously, there are different forces at play but the basic idea of survival of the fittest applies. In language, the fittest is the word that has gained the most popular acceptance.
    – terdon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 14:31
  • By the way, I doubt that there were steerable boats available before the domestication of cattle. That, combined with the fact that the eldest textual reference is for the animal (700) and not the nautical term (888) would suggest the animal being first. Why do you assume otherwise? In any case, you answer does not seem to address the main question which is whether either of the two words was derived from the other.
    – terdon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 14:33
  • A quick internet browse confirms my suspicion that navigable boats have been in use for a very rough estimate of 200-1000 years before cattle were domesticated about 8000 years ago (although there is some evidence that suggests there were seafaring boats as early as 30,000 years ago). SO yes, there were most likely 'steerable' boats before the domestication of cattle (though I can't fathom the use of a non-steerable boat, but I'll leave it at that).
    – Arammil
    Jul 15, 2013 at 8:38
  • Furthermore, the OED only lists extant textual examples of the usage of a word. I.E. they easily could have both been used around the same time period. The more important fact is that there is no evidence to support 'driving oxen' as the originator of steer v. but there is plenty of evidence to demonstrate steer v. developed separately from steer n. Not to mention that starboard and larboard both directly support the the root of a nautical 'to steer' whereas there is no evidence that it might have came from cattle or driving oxen.
    – Arammil
    Jul 15, 2013 at 8:45
  • Huh, fair enough, I would have thought the domestication of cattle predated boats. Hmm, you make a good argument here...
    – terdon
    Jul 15, 2013 at 16:18

It looks like a possibility, but it may be a coincidence. Online Etymology and dictionary.reference.com both point to similar roots for both words, but Online Etymology could be read to suggest that the word steer is more related to the root that the word stern evolved from.

Of course, the stern of a ship is the hind-part which controls the direction a boat will take. Check the sites I linked to dig a little deeper.

  • 1
    And starboard is the side on which the steering board is attached. Jul 10, 2013 at 8:10
  • Yes, I know, that's why I my question was based on the Online Etymology's entry on steer and quotes the relevant lines.
    – terdon
    Jul 14, 2013 at 14:36

The older words are - and steer (animal) and to steer a boat are very old words - the more difficult it is to give clear answers. In such early times it is often impossible to decide to which word family a word belongs. The word families can be too similar, they can intermingle or they are a mistlike agglomeration that is splitting up into several branches later on. It is futile to search for clear answers about words that date from the mist of earliest times.

I can only give my impression. I would say that a word like Greek tauros and a verb as to steer have no common source. But that is no more than a guess.


I'd like to add that Steer is almost invariably linked to Star, as nautically, the stars are the navigation. Ancient mariners (and even some modern sailors) steer by the star position using celestial navigation. Further, stars occupy fixed positions eternally, and thus fit in with the rigidity, unmoving, unchanging theme. And the mariners do form a vector of people who 1) were on the move, spreading language 2) needed to communicate effectively with one another using a fixed vocabulary in order to succeed on a journey. Steering a crude wooden boat across the high seas is a round the clock physical challenge that would have taken several teams of people to do. Keeping the craft pointed on a fixed heading requires a fixed object above the horizon. I suspect the star connection may also be a root for 'stare' and possibly 'staid'. The aft portion of the vessel is known as the stern as this is the point from which to most effectively steer the boat.

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