Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Separated by a single letter, the words stationary and stationery are called out in every list of commonly confused words and every guide to mastering tricky English spelling. Even people who perfectly understand the difference can find that they’ve typed the wrong one, blaming, perhaps, the muscle memory in their fingers for the typo.
A dictionary will point out that the adjective stationary means “unmoving,” and the noun stationery refers to paper goods used for writing or typing — words that seem to come from wildly different spheres. But they are, of course, connected.
In classical Latin, the word stationarius was an adjective referring a military location where soldiers were, well, stationed. It traces back to statio, which could mean “standing, standing firm” as well as a number of things that remained constant, such as a military post, a port, a job, or a guard. (The word is related to Latin stare “to stand,” which means it also links to the word superstition.)
Later, while the word statio (and the later English station) remained attached to the concept of a military posting, stationarius drifted toward simply the concept of standing still; it became the Old French stacionaire “motionless.” From this source, we find, in the late 14th century, the first recorded use in English of stacionarie, which, after spelling standardization was a goal, became stationary.
Meanwhile, during the Middle Ages — well before the first shopping mall was built — the standard for selling everything from meat to metal goods was for the seller to travel from place to place, that is, from house to house, village to village, or market to market. But not every vendor was so mobile.
Before the invention of moveable type, books were rare and precious (and expensive), and needed to be protected from the rigors of travel and weather. Furthermore, books were only needed where the literate were found. And where could you find the literate in the Middle Ages? Universities!
Many universities would license a single location where books and writing materials could be bought and sold. Because these shops were stationary, the people who ran these shops were called stationers (as opposed to the roaming peddlers, tracing back to the Latin pes “foot”). A surname in the late 1200s, stationer appeared in English texts in the book-purveying sense in the early 1300s. In 1405, before Gutenberg’s moveable type was developed, the Guild of Stationers — consisting of book binders, scriveners, illustrators, and booksellers — was established in London.
Once the moveable press began to proliferate through Europe in the 15th century, the British monarchy was very concerned with what was being printed and sold and who was allowed to do it. Royal agencies were established to monitor, control, censor, and otherwise control the book industry. The Guild of Stationers, which now included book printers, was given a virtual monopoly on the book trade in England in 1557. Thus the livelihood of book printers and sellers was subject to the whims and winds of political and religious change among the nobles.
But the book-making business couldn’t be contained so easily. The Guild, which became more concerned with protecting copyright than controlling bookselling, lost its monopoly in 1710, opening the way for other printers and booksellers. Vendors of all sorts started creating permanent places of business rather than being so mobile. As the general public became more literate, bookstores (a word that appeared in the 1760s) opened outside the university.
Centuries had passed since those original university-licensed stationers traded primarily in handwritten books. And now that they no longer were the sole source of books for university students, you can see how, to compete with other bookstores, they might focus less on bound, finished volumes and more on the other goods university students needed: paper, pens, pencils, envelopes, blank books.
These goods — the things that weren’t books — were known, by the early 18th century, as stationery wares, and then just stationery.
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