Q&A: ‘Stationary’ vs ‘stationery’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, action stations…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about stationery?

A: We certainly can. Things like pens, pencils, rulers, paper. Useful in the office and apparently also useful when you steal it to take home.

Q: Hey, I NEEDED that stuff for the days I work from home.

A: You took the office photocopier.

Q: Okay, maybe I went a bit far with that one. 

A: Ya think?

Q: Ahem, well anyway. I wanted to know why we have two meanings for “stationery” and which came first?

A: We don’t have two meanings for “stationery”. Macquarie Dictionary very clearly defines it as writing materials, as pens, pencils, paper, etc.”

Q: That’s it?

A: That’s it.

Q: But what about when you don’t move?

A: If we don’t move, we still think that’s it.

Q: Nooo, the definition of not moving!

A: Ahhh, okay, you’re talking about the identical sounding but differently spelt “stationary” – with an A. Unlike the paper “stationery”, which is a noun, “stationary” is typically an adjective. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “unchanging in condition”.

Q: That’s it. So which one came first?

A: It’s a little complicated, so let’s go in alphabetical order.

Q: …

A: Let’s start with “stationary”.

Q: Ah yes! I knew that. Please, continue.

A: “Stationary” came into English in the late 1300s – initially to describe the planets as having “no apparent motion”. Science would eventually prove that wrong, but it wasn’t until the 1620s that the word “stationary” came to mean the more intentional “unmoveable” or to “remain unchanged”.

Q: Standing still!

A: Yes. That’s right.

Q: So how is that related to writing and paper?

A: We never said it was.

Q: But then why have TWO words look almost identical and sound identical, yet have such different meanings?

A: You’ve met English, right?

Q: Ugh.

A: Okay, both words DO come from “station” – which first appeared in the 1200s from the Latin “statio” meaning “a place one occupies; a post”. You may have heard of someone’s “station in life”?

Q: Yeah, I catch the train from there.

A: No, it’s more like a job or post – your station. Another phrase is something being “above one’s station” – in that case, it’s above their rank or social status.

Q: We have one of those bridge things above our station, so you can get to all the other platforms.

A: No, that’s– never mind. Train or police “stations” didn’t become a thing till the 1830s.

Q: Okay, well anyway, “station” came first – makes sense. And I guess “stationary” with its planets occupying a place came soon after, yeah?

A: That’s true. But this is where the “it’s complicated” part. Because in the middle, the word “stationer” popped up in the early 1300s. 

Q: Stationer – without the Y?

A: That’s right. And a “stationer” – surprise, surprise – came from the idea of a post or set place that someone occupies. In this case, it was a tradesman who didn’t travel about, but rather sold things from one specific spot.

Q: The first shops!

A: Exactly! In the early 1300s, the idea of someone being in the same place, or station, and selling things – initially books – was a novel concept indeed.

Q: Books. Novel. I see what you did there!

A: These “stationers” were quite unusual in a time of travelling salesmen peddling their wares across the land.

Q: They used bicycles?

A: No, that would be “pedalling” – with pedals. This was “peddling” – to sell small items, initially on the move. Easy mistake.

Q: So stationers mainly sold books and paper? I think I can see where this is going…

A: Even a blind person can see where this one is going. And despite the early arrival of “stationers” on the scene, it wouldn’t be until the 1680s that the word “stationery” became a thing – as these booksellers began selling other things like paper, pens, pencils and so on. By 1727, it had officially entered the dictionaries of the day.

Q: And that dictionary was probably sold in a stationer’s shop!

A: Cute, and yes, most likely. So even though both words came from “station” – and the idea of not moving – they got there in different ways. Likewise, while the word “stationary” came along far before “stationery”, the latter’s root word “stationer” was the earliest.

Q: People seem to get these two confused all the time. What’s the easiest way to remember which is which?

A: Some say that you buy “papER” from a “stationERy” shop. We just think “E for envelope” works just as well.

Q: And what about “stationary”?

A: If you know the other one, you don’t need one!

Q: Oh, good point! So, to recap – the unmoving aspect of “station” gave us “stationer” then “stationary”, and finally “stationery” once there were enough items worth steali— I mean selling.

A: Now, can we talk about returning that photocopier?

Q: Sorry? What’s that? You’re breaking up.

A: We’re literally in the same room.

Q: Wh— I ca– hear y— thin— goi— throu— tunnel…

A: Never mind, we’ll get another one.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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