Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stare, indecisus

Saint Pancras
Stationers' Hall

The confirmation hearings for the last Princeton alumnus (Samuel Alito) to be appointed to the Supreme Court were memorable to me for philological reasons. (The more recent hearings for two alumnæ, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, wanted even that excitement). I say this not because the nominees lacked interest or ability--far from it. But the senatorial grandstanding became oppressive. Given the gravity of the work at hand, it is a sad necessity to report that rarely do fatuity and pomposity combine with such powerful soporific effect as in the televised deliberations of Senate Judiciary Committee—an axiom of general application among Democratic no less than Republican majorities.

Among the topics on which the blowhards were blowing hardest was stare decisis, pronounced in such fashion as to encourage a belief that it referred to a Hollywood starlet or dancer named “Starry de Sizus”. Of course everyone knows that stare decisis (“to let stand those things already decided”) is not a lady but a legal principle, the invocation of which actually means “How can I use your opinion on abortion, whatever it may happen to be, against you?” Call me eccentric, but what it got me musing about was not abortion but the past participle status, Grand Central station, stationary, stationery, and the difference between an airport and an aerogare. But only now, five years latter, has the penny dropped.

I have just finished a lengthy essay for a festschrift, a naturalized German word meaning a collection of learned essays published in honor of some worthy person upon the occasion of a significant birthday or retirement. As the proud recipient of two such volumes I know how rewarding they are for the adepts of a profession whose rewards must seem by the world’s standards pretty puny. The preparations are always supposed to be secret. The intended recipient almost certainly does not read this blog, but as it is barely conceivable that he might, I say no more, except that, pursuing materials far distant from the Middle Ages, I came upon the joint commonplace book* compiled by Robert Southey and S. T. Coleridge, published in 1812.

Robert Southey (1774-1843)

You may know little more of their association (if indeed that much) than Byron’s delicious dedication to Don Juan, which while grotesquely unfair, is too good not to quote:

Bob Southey! You're a poet—Poet-laureate

And representative of all the race,

Although 't is true that you turn'd out a Tory at

Last,—yours has lately been a common case...

And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,

But like a hawk encumber'd with his hood,—
Explaining metaphysics to the nation—
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834)

Southey was actually a good deal more than a Poet Tory-at (what a great rhyme!). He was for instance a serious hispanist, a student of early Iberian literature, translator of the poem of the Cid, among other works. Several of his fascinating snippets in Omniana deal with Spanish themes.

One of them brings us back to stare (to stand upright, to stand unmoving) and its interesting family. Your status is the place you’re standing, literally or metaphorically. That once was called your station in life. Our English words ending in –ion come generally from Old French versions of Latin words. If you had a lot of status in the old days, it probably went with having a lot of real estate. Since state appears to be an aphetic form of estate, Louis XIV might actually have mumbled “L’tat, c’est moi.” (The disappearance of intervocalic s in French, incidentally, with only the circumflex for spoor, is what gives us such useful doublets as hostel and hotel/ hôtel.) The President will soon deliver the State of the Union Address; but we already known in certain states of the union, not coincidentally those with large and underfunded entitlements, the economic conditions are worse than in some others.

When I was a boy in school one of Mrs. White’s favorite spelling-bee traps involved the homophones stationary (in a fixed position, unmoving) and stationery (paraphernalia for writing and especially writing paper). I was fifty years old before I realized they were the same word. The great code of medieval Spanish law is called the Siete Partidas, or “Seven Part” Law Code. It was promulgated by the admirable Castilian monarch, Alfonso the Wise (1252-1284). One of old Bob Southey’s niftier entries concerns it. Before the invention of the printing press, which allowed works to be corrected in proof by their authors, the problem of quality control in book production was acute. Thus decreed Alfonso: “Every university, to be complete, should have stationers [estacionarios] in it who have in their shops [estaciones] good books, and legible, and correct both in text and in gloss, which they let out to the scholars, either to make new books from them, or to correct those which they have already written.”

King Alfonso ruled wisely

Now a station had meant any place where one paused for a while (the stations of the Exodus, the Stations of the Cross), and especially a place where one set up shop. Here the connection with stare (stand) remains in English words like bandstands and the local kids’ lemonade stand. But on account of Alfonso’s law this one particular station (estacion) took on a particular importance and particular significance. Likewise the English Stationers' Hall of Shakespeare’s time was something like our Copyright Office.

That ought to be enough to show that stare is far from stationary, let alone decisus, wandering as it does far and wide over the lexical map. But what about train stations? What’s supposed to happen there? In French a train station is a gare, and (since French is a logical language) an airport is an aerogare. Since we have train stations why don’t we have airplane stations, too, instead of airports? Well, garer means to shunt (railroad cars), to set aside in safety, to park. Hence the word garage. It’s all about providing status for the vehicles in the form of a safe parking place, unless the vehicle involved should be a car, and outdoors.

For that they have a different word.

*Omniana or Horæ Otiosiores by Robert Southey and S. T. Coleridge, ed. Robert Gittings (1969). You need this book on your bedside table, and since a large part of the American edition was remaindered (as the peacock seldom wins the prize in the poultry contest), you can get one for a song at Abebooks.com.