Yesterday I tweeted: “ ‘Staunch the flow’? Am staunchly upholding a preference for ‘stanch.’ #amediting”
Dai Hawkins, a regular and thoughtful reader, promptly pointed out that the history in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the two words have been functionally interchangeable for centuries. He later also cited Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage to similar effect.
He was quite right. To insist on limiting staunch as an adjective meaning “steadfast” and stanch as a verb meaning “to stop the flow of” is an arbitrary choice, though the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage note indicates that these are still the most common senses in the United States.
Editing often means making arbitrary choices. A house style merely indicates that when there is more than one acceptable way to capitalize or abbreviate, we arbitrarily pick one to avoid distracting the reader with needless variants. But when we have pairs of words with blurred meanings, as staunch/stanch, the arbitrary choice becomes more difficult.