What makes ‘statue’ and ‘statute’ so alike?

These words are indeed similar – and swapping the the word statue for statute would not have been an error in the Middle Ages.

A sharp-eyed reader spotted a typo in the Monitor’s May 31 issue. In a review of a book about Napoleon’s plunder of major artworks across Europe, the French general demanded “one hundred paintings, busts, vases or statutes” from the pope. The reader noticed that this list of objects should conclude with statues, not statutes. Why, he wondered, are these words so similar? 

These words are indeed similar – the word statute would not have been an error in the Middle Ages. Manuscripts of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (circa 1387), for example, mention a “statute of gold” constructed for a king, and the “statues” of marriage law that bind husbands and wives. The words were distinct semantically – a statue was a 3D object and a statute was a law – and context made it easy to tell which was intended, but scribal idiosyncrasies and widely differing English dialects meant that they could be pronounced and spelled the same way. 

The Oxford English Dictionary theorizes that this interchangeability stemmed from too much, rather than too little, knowledge on the part of authors and scribes. Both words had arrived in English with the conquering Normans, and trilingual (French, English, and Latin speaking) writers were aware that statue and statute were related to each other and to the Latin statutum, “something set up,” a form of statuere, “to set up, decree.”

The ancestor of statuere is status, past participle of stare, “to stand.” And once we get to stare, we can see that statue and statute are part of a constellation of English words that might no longer appear related, but that all originally had something to do with standing around.

Status (first used in English in 1577) is one’s “standing” in relation to others. If one “stands” in a temporary condition, it is a state (1225) – a state of relaxation, the three states of water. You “stand still” at a station (1325), making you stationary (1398). Animals stand in a stable (1250). An actor can recite the stanzas (1596) of a poem while taking a stable (1340) stance (1532) on a stage (circa 1400).  

Stationery – “materials for writing” – also once involved “standing.” In the Middle Ages, most goods were sold at fairs, like giant flea markets, or by traveling peddlers. Brick-and-mortar shops were unusual, and known as “stationary booths.” Many were operated by book and paper sellers, because their wares were heavy, expensive, and easily damaged. In the 15th century, the Stationers’ Company was a guild that included booksellers, illustrators, bookbinders, and those who sold paper and writing supplies. Eventually, however, the immobile professions split, and a stationer became someone who sells stationery (1727).

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