Follow the bouncing barrel.

Dear Word Detective: We have a family tradition of reading aloud Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” every Christmas Eve. Each family member takes their turn at a stave. That is my point. To me, a “stave” is one of the carved wooden slats that make up a barrel. But our reproduction “Christmas Carol” is divided into five staves, so obviously in 1827 a “stave” meant something other than part of a barrel. Could you enlighten us? — Donald Wilkinson.

Reading Dickens on Christmas Eve sounds nice. Here at TWD World Headquarters we usually just chill out with a giant tub of popcorn and watch the Petticoat Junction marathon on the farm channel. Just kidding. I’m partial to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” read by Dylan Thomas himself (available on YouTube, naturally). Someone actually made a movie of it in 1987 starring Denholm Elliot (also available on YouTube), but I haven’t watched it. I have my own imagination, thank you.

Prior to writing this column, I was unaware that Dickens himself had labeled the five sections of his story “staves,” a term usually applied to a verse or stanza of a poem or song, in keeping with the “carol” of the title. The origin of the word “stave” is simple, although slightly odd. “Stave” is a “back-formation” from the word “staves,” a back-formation being a word coined as a simpler, “implied” form of an existing form. “Staves,” in the 14th century, was actually the plural form of “staff” (much as “leaves” is the plural of “leaf”). There was no singular “stave;” the singular form of “staves” was already “staff.” But folks invented “stave,” and there it sits.

The word “staff” dates back to the Old English “staef,” from Germanic roots connoting “firmness” or “support.” Our English “staff” has developed literally dozens of meanings since it first appeared meaning “walking stick.” Interestingly (to me, anyway), “staff” in the sense of “office staff” probably comes from the short “staff” or baton carried by a military officer as a badge of authority, figuratively extended to the group of officers making up his entourage. Voila, staff meetings.

Being essentially the same word, “staff” and “stave” were frequently used interchangeably, usually in senses connoting either “support or structure” of some kind or measurement. “Staff” gradually outpaced “stave” in popularity, and the uses of “stave” today are more narrowly defined. The most common “staves” are the long, narrow, often curved strips of wood which, bound together by bands, form the sides of an old-fashioned barrel or tub.

In the 16th century, we began to use “staff” to mean “a line of verse” or “a set of lines or stanza in verse or song” by analogy of the long, narrow shape of the lines to a stick or pole. Similarly, the set of five parallel lines used in music notation came to be called a “staff” in the 17th century. The first sense (set of lines in verse or song) has since been entirely transferred to “stave,” while the music notation sense is still handled by both “staff” and “stave.”

The verb “to stave,” by the way, has two senses common today. The older is “to break up a cask or barrel” or, more generally, “to break a hole in” or “smash inward with great force.” This “smashing” sense gave us the nautical term of a boat’s hull being “stove” (past and participial formĀ  of “stave”) on rocks or in a collision. The other sense of “to stave” is “to drive off, repel, or hold at bay using a staff or stave,” which we use today in a metaphorical sense of “ward off, prevent or delay” (“He had obtained an advance of money from Newbery to stave off some pressing debts.” 1849).

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