Thursday, May 26, 2016

Language of Confusion: Official

Liz mentioned a couple of weeks ago wondering where the word staple came from, so of course I wondered two and now here we go, looking at all the basic office supplies.

Pen—like for writing, not animals—showed up in the late thirteenth century from the Old French pene, a quill. It comes from the classical Latin penna, feather, and even further back the Proto Indo European pet-na-, which is related to pet-, or fly. Basically, since we used bird feathers as pens, the word for feather morphed into pen.

Now, you might be thinking that pencil is related. They’re at least close, right? Ha ha, no. Not even a little. Pencil showed up in the early fourteenth century meaning an artist’s brush made of camel hair, coming from the Old French pincel, artist’s paintbrush and classical Latin penicillus, paint brush, or peniculus, brush. Oh, and apparently that peniculus comes from the Latin word penis, which means exactly what you think it means. It also means tail. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Paper showed up in the mid fourteenth century from the Anglo French paper and Old French papier. That word comes from the classical Latin papyrus, (from the Greek papyros) which you might recognize as a store or an annoying font. It’s also the plant that paper was originally made from way back in ancient Egypt, where it was first invented.

And now for the word that started this crazy journey. Staple showed up in the late thirteenth century, more than a century before the other definition of staple. However, staple originally just meant a piece of metal with pointed ends, and not the thing that you used on paper until 1895. The metal staple comes from the Old English stapol, a tree trunk or post, and before that the Proto Germanic stapulaz/stap- and Proto Indo European stebh, the origin word for staff. The other staple comes from the Anglo French estaple and Old French also estaple, a stall or market. That word is most definitely Germanic in origin as many old Germanic languages use a variant of staple to mean market, but the details are unknown. And it’s probably related to the other staple. Maybe. Possibly.

Yeah, sorry about that. It’s kind of a non-answer. This was really a weird week etymology wise.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. What about a staple in your diet?
    Not going to even touch the word peniculus...

  2. From feather, tail, and penis we get the lead pencil? Weird.

  3. Yeah I thought you meant a "staple diet" for the other meaning, where does the market stall come in? It'll be hard to look at a pencil in the same way again...

  4. So, staple was around before stapler (which makes sense in that stapler would be something you'd do to a staple). But the other comes from a market or stall. I can kind of see that. Kind of.

  5. Well, pencils are a bit phallic, after all- though not terribly thick.

    The Sisters Of Little Or No Mercy would not be pleased.

  6. So the pen is mightier than the sword?

  7. I'm not going to lie. I laughed at pencil coming from penis. Because I am mature like that. XD


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