Stationery vs Stationary

What have the Romans ever done for us?

What have the Romans ever done for stationery?

Well, they gave us our alphabet

Alright, but apart from the alphabet, what else have they done?

They gave us the name ‘stationery’

But they didn’t have paper or pens

They didn’t have paper or pens – they came from China and the Arabic world – and the Romans would have been surprised to find that the word had come to be used in that way. They would have understood the usage of ‘stationary’ but why ‘stationery’?

It’s a long story but the two words are connected and have the same origin.

Both stem from the Latin verb ’sto’ – to stand, to stay, to remain. The development of ‘stationary’ from this is obvious but why ‘stationery’ and ‘stationers’? An early step from ‘sto’ was ‘stationem’, originally a Roman military term, first for a picket, then any place such as a permanent encampment or outpost, something that was not moving.  Over time usage moved beyond the purely military to cover any establishment that had permanence, when in the past it had been itinerant.

So, when in medieval times merchants began to establish purpose built shops to sell goods, as opposed to stalls or itinerant traders, such as pedlars, or ‘chapmen’ in the case of books, they took the same term. ‘Stationers’ were establishments you actually entered to view, discuss and buy, a qualitative shift from the, often permanent, stalls that had been in existence since Greek and Roman times. The new ‘stationary’ shops were particularly suited to writing materials and books because of their vulnerability to climate damage.

This development was especially marked in Paris, then as now seen as a centre of sophistication, and a great many of these ‘stationers’ sold written works and the materials required to write, a rarefied and expensive activity at that time. It was copies of these writing material establishments that first found their way to England, where, consciously adopting the then French name as a mark of their sophistication, they became ‘stationers’.

Whilst derivatives of the original ‘sto’ are numerous in both English and French, statue and statistic are but two examples, the link with retailing or ‘stationery’ has been lost in French for some long time. In contrast, in English it has come to have a very specific set of meanings, all related to that original adoption, shops that sold books and writing materials and as a general term to describe the writing materials themselves. Nowadays, booksellers and stationers are often seen as distinctively different, but the ancient link between writing and the end products remains in a great number of cases.

Until the 18th/19th centuries, usage of the two spellings, ‘stationery’ and ‘stationary’ was a matter of choice, with ‘stationery’ the more common of the two. It is only in the last two hundred years or so that the distinction has been regularly observed, although it remains a trap for many.

So, to return to the beginning, in a roundabout way the Romans gave us stationery, or at least the word to describe it.

Written by Ken Irons, November 2016

And for anyone who either wants to watch it again, or (is it possible?) doesn’t get title, you can watch that scene again

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