from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • adj. Causing or capable of causing emotional shock or loss of consciousness.
  • adj. Of a strikingly attractive appearance.
  • adj. Impressive: gave a stunning performance.
  • adj. Surprising: The President's final decision came with stunning suddenness.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • adj. Having an effect that stuns.
  • adj. Exceptionally beautiful or attractive.
  • adj. Amazing.
  • v. Present participle of stun.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • adj. Overpowering consciousness; overpowering the senses; especially, overpowering the sense of hearing; confounding with noise.
  • adj. Striking or overpowering with astonishment, especially on account of excellence.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • Very striking; astonishing, especially by fine quality or appearance; of a most admirable or wonderful kind.
  • n. The act or condition expressed by the verb stun; stupefaction.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • adj. strikingly beautiful or attractive
  • adj. commanding attention
  • adj. causing great astonishment and consternation
  • adj. causing or capable of causing bewilderment or shock or insensibility


Sorry, no etymologies found.



Log in or sign up to get involved in the conversation. It's quick and easy.

  • I just popped back here to say that I find this discussion stunning in the definition #2 sense (excellent, first-rate, "splendid") and that I find you all stunning as well, also in the definition #2 sense (delightful; extremely attractive or good-looking).

    And now, back to my stunning life, in the definition #1 sense (that stuns or stupefies).

    December 24, 2010

  • I think that because sense #2 is dominant, a usage of sense #1 needs to make reference to whatever aspect of the subject is so stunning (e.g. its complexity). Otherwise ("Oh, what a stunning war!") it does indeed sound wrong.

    As for wrestling with a stunning thing, good point but I think it's possible (e.g. a hangover). Basically the way I read that sentence is like this:

    The situation was complex enough to stun a mere mortal, but Holbrooke wrestled with its complexity - as Superman might wrestle with an impending meteorite - and emerged triumphant and unstunned.

    December 16, 2010

  • I've been out of the country for a decade, so maybe I'm out of touch. But essentially what I hear in McFadden's usage is something like, "Oh, what a stunning war!" And that seems strange. I'm not saying his usage is incorrect; I understand what he means. And there is nothing wrong with describing the AfPak complexity in a way that points to its ability to render one dazed and senseless. The problem here is the dissonance with the more common figurative sense of "stunning", since complexity can also be astoundingly beautiful. In a different context, I wouldn't do this kind of double take, e.g. "Mr. Knightley's stunning rebuke of her treatment of Miss Bates caused Emma to question her judgement about many other things as well."

    There is also the problem of mixing metaphors: Can one wrestle with something that is stunning? Isn't the implication of "stunning" – even in its figurative uses – that it leaves you incapacitated, unable to act, speechless (not a good thing for a diplomat, by the way)?

    I also thought McFadden's use of the word smacked of a certain journalistic pretentiousness. All of this is just my opinion, my feeling about it. And apparently none of y'all felt that way. Which is fine. But it makes me wonder if I need to adjust my language antennae.

    December 16, 2010

  • I don't think "stunning" has become inextricably wedded to sense #2 (although this is the more common sense these days), and I don't see why sense #1 need refer to a literal, physical blow rather than a figurative one.

    December 16, 2010

  • When I went to the liquor store* in Boston, I couldn't believe the wide variety of beverages. I was Pakistunned.

    *See packie.

    December 16, 2010

  • I just bought a holiday house in Kabul and all my friends were Afghanistunned.

    December 16, 2010

  • I disagree, rolig. "To daze or render senseless" certainly can apply to the level of complexity in Afghanistan/Pakistan, without there necessarily being a blow to one's head about it. I think the result is similar to the result of a blow to one's head--in the same way people say "I can't think about that right now--it gives me a headache." They don't mean it *literally* hurts their head, but that its complexity is... well... stunning.

    Also, as I read definition 2, I think it really only applies/is commonly used in reference to a person's attractiveness, and actually relates to definition 1 in the sense that the person is SO attractive, their beauty SO amazing, that it's as if one is stunned (rendered senseless) to look at them.

    I agree the journalist could have found a better term, but this one's rather more neutral than others that could apply here, and given the political undertones of the Af/Pak situation and the fact that the article was about Holbrooke--not the situation itself--the relative neutrality of the term was probably a good thing.

    P.S. nice to see these kinds of conversations--and have time to read them. :)

    December 16, 2010

  • Still, "stunning complexity" is not the best choice if you feel no admiration for the complexity. The first meaning the OED gives is the literal meaning of the word. McFadden did not intend to say that the complexity of the situation literally knocks people out in the way a "stunning blow to the head" would. He was trying to use the word figuratively and in this sense was employing a new meaning of the word, one not listed by the OED: "extremely difficult, daunting, challenging." This would be fine if there did not already exist an established figurative meaning of the word "stunning", which the OED duly records as its second definition: "excellent, first-rate, 'splendid', delightful, etc.". So because we know from news reports that the complexity of the Afghan situation is not delightful, we are left with a certain feeling of dissonance from this collocation: it does not mean the same thing it does in, for example, the phrase: "the stunning complexity of Bach's polyphony." So I find McFadden's usage of the word strange – unless, of course, he meant to say, literally, that the complexity of the situation left Holbrooke dazed, unable to reason, unconscious.

    December 16, 2010

  • Thanks a million rt!

    I have the OED on CD on my home computer, but it seems to have stopped working. In any case I usually forget these things when I'm at home.

    December 16, 2010

  • Yarb, I think you're right. OED shows two definitions:

    1. That stuns or stupefies; dazing, astounding; deafening.

    2. Excellent, first-rate, "splendid", delightful; extremely attractive or good-looking.

    For #1, 1667 is the first citation (Milton, by the way, in Paradise Lost); 1849 is the first citation for #2 (Dickens, David Copperfield). Also noted is that #2 is a colloquial use.

    December 16, 2010

  • I read it as McFadden using stunning in AHD's sense #1 of stun - "to daze or render senseless, as if by a blow"; i.e. the situation was so complex as to leave one dazed.

    To my mind, the note of admiration is not inevitable and may represent a newer sense of the word. Someone with OED access could check this.

    December 14, 2010

  • I find the following usage of the word strange:

    "More recently, Mr. Holbrooke wrestled with the stunning complexity of Afghanistan and Pakistan: how to bring stability to the region while fighting a resurgent Taliban and coping with corrupt governments, rigged elections, fragile economies, a rampant narcotics trade, nuclear weapons in Pakistan, and the presence of Al Qaeda, and presumably Osama bin Laden, in the wild tribal borderlands."

    – From the Robert D. McFadden's article on the late Richard Holbrooke, New York Times, 13 Dec 2010.

    Here McFadden uses "stunning" to mean something like "extremely daunting", but the word inevitably adds a note of admiration for the complexity of situation, which I find strange. Is this a fairly new usage? Pretentious/hip journalese?

    December 14, 2010

  • strikingly beautiful or attractive.

    October 31, 2007