If you enjoy pain, and are tired of listening to Florence and the Machine, try putting a staple into your finger by mistake. On the Richter Scale of agony, it ranks a couple of places above childbirth and just below relieving yourself carelessly after chopping chillies. Fortunately it’s an accident that doesn’t happen very often but once a lifetime is enough.
You might think the staple is a relatively new invention – surely not a product of the Middle Ages, when there was little demand for a well stocked stationery cupboard – but you’d be surprised. Staples were, in fact, in circulation as long ago as the 13th century – indeed, probably a long time before that; we just didn’t call them staples.
These weren’t the little, vicious staples that shouldn’t go in your finger but sometimes do, they were great big bits of metal, bent into a U and used for making things like shields. Medieval shield makers discovered that you could make a stronger, lighter shield if, instead of using thick planks of wood, you used several layers of thin pieces of wood, arranged with their grains at right-angles. These layers were fixed together with glue and staples. It was the original plywood.
Why they were called staples is somewhat mysterious. The best guess is that they looked a bit like a couple of pillars (if you squinted and cocked your head to one side). The word staple, you see, was already in use, meaning a pillar or post (of Germanic origin), and from that meaning it became the word for an official trading post. The Staple became an important place for merchants, particularly the wool trade, which was thriving at the time, and thus wool and other essentials sold at the staple became ‘staple goods’.
There are still vestiges of this in existence, such as the Staple Inn on High Holborn in London, a surviving example of a wool staple built in Tudor times; and the Merchant Staplers, the oldest mercantile corporation in the country, which was originally a company of wool merchants (not a bunch of people who specialised in fixing bits of paper together). The real Dick Whittington was a Merchant Stapler.
Oh no he wasn’t.
Oh yes he was.
The word staple is also evident in place names like Barnstaple, which many people think is (or should be) Barnstable, and are not entirely wrong. The town has been called Barnstable in its time, but that was a corruption of the original Barnstaple, from the staple, as are Whitstable and Dunstable, which have stuck with the erroneous B.
The stable, in this case, has nothing to do with a place for keeping horses. It’s a derivation of the old staple. So Whitstable and Dunstable were originally named White Staple and Dun Staple (dun meaning hill), perhaps because there was a market there or possibly just a pillar. In the absence of more sophisticated entertainments, pillars were pretty important in the olden days. As a form of popular entertainment, people would be driven from them to posts, just to exasperate them (exasperating being the precursor to watching Spurs).
The word stable, as we use it today, comes from a different source altogether: the French ‘estable’, derived from the Latin adjective ‘stabilis’, meaning, well, stable. A stable for horses was so-called because it was a more stable structure than a rickety, which is what horses used to be kept in. Ricketies could be folded up and carried around but they weren’t much good in strong winds*.
So the adjective stable has two meanings. It can mean ‘steadfast, controlled, solid’ or it can mean ‘having the whiff of horse manure about it’. The latter usual applies in the context of a self-proclaimed genius.