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Stationary versus stationery

Q From Julane Marx in the USA: I remember learning the difference between stationary (not moving) and stationery (letterhead, envelopes, etc.) and even figured out a mnemonic device — the e is for envelope. But is there actually any significance to the similarity of the two words — is there something stationary about stationery?

A There is indeed. The words come from the same source, the Latin stationarius, for a person who was based at a military station. In medieval times a stationarius was a trader who had a fixed station — a shop — rather than travelling from fair to fair, like a pedlar. These were usually booksellers (whose stock was too bulky to be carried about) and were mostly linked to the medieval universities, which is why such an elevated Latin word came to be attached to them. It became stationer in English, a form that’s recorded from the fourteenth century.

Such traders dealt in everything to do with books, not merely selling them but copying and binding them and selling related materials such as paper, pens and ink. This was well before the days of printing from moveable type, remember: every book had to be copied by hand. So the materials for doing so were as important to the trade as the finished article. Inevitably, the introduction of printing caused the stationer’s business to change radically. By the seventeenth century the term bookseller had come in for the trader in finished books, leaving stationer for the seller of writing materials.

The obsolete meaning is preserved in the name of the Stationers’ Company (these days the Stationers’ and Newspaper Makers’ Company), one of the ancient City of London livery companies, which has always been a trade guild of booksellers and publishers. From 1557 to 1694 it controlled the production of printed books, and even down to 1911 it supervised copyrights, which is why old British books are marked as being “registered at Stationers’ Hall”.

Stationery, as a general term for the things sold, appeared in the eighteenth century. There was much confusion about spelling in the early days, since stationary as an adjective for things that don’t move about had been in the language for about a hundred years. But by the middle of the century a clear distinction had appeared, based on the logic that what a stationer sold had to be stuff called stationery.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Mar. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 March 2000.