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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Stroke someone's ego or stoke someone's ego?

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

A friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook about someone's ego being stroked by the sycophants surrounding them. I'll let you guess who that someone was.

But then her daughter weighed in to say that the correct expression was "stoke someone's ego".

Who was right?

The verb "stroke", which has been with us since Anglo-Saxon times, has been used since the 1500s in a figurative sense to mean "manipulate someone with flattery, persuasion, compliments, etc."
 1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Instit. (1562) ii. i. §2. 70   There is nothing that mannes nature more coueteth, than to be stroked with flattery.
But "ego" didn't enter the language till the 1800s, and it was only after 1900 that it came to be used to mean "self-esteem or self-importance". The phrase "stroke someone's ego" dates from the 1940s. 

In the last ten years, however, we have started to see "stoke someone's ego", much less frequently than the earlier expression, but nonetheless out there. It may have started out as a malapropism for "stroke someone's ego", but the metaphor is different, with the ego seen as something highly combustible which is fanned to higher flames by compliments being shovelled onto it. In contrast, "stroke someone's ego" seems placatory.

Well, I think in our current circumstances we need both expressions!


  1. You're right, we do, if only for the one president whose much-stoked ego needs constant stroking.

  2. I don't quite know how to say the subtle difference that I see between the words.

    I really love the Word Lady's blog, I say, stroking your ego.

    I'm stoked, you think, as you settle down to write another entertaining and interesting blog post.

    The stroking stokes.

    I also feel that to stoke your enthusiasm for writing about language, I'd have to ask you to explain why the various divisions in a 1/256th note of music are listed in their order in a demisemihemidemisemiquaver

    I'm asking as a friend of both Sonia Klimasko and Allison Pellette. (Strokes that stoke.)


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.