Sunday, 19 September 2010

Stationery, Pen, Pencil: Etymology Lesson

Stationer's Stall. 
Image from The Book of Days

stationer n. Person who sells paper, pens, pencils, etc. 1311 stacioner book dealer; earlier as a surname Staciner (1293-4); borrowed from Medieval Latin stationarius, originally, stationary seller, as distinct from a roving peddler.

The sale of writing materials was originally part of a book dealer’s business. The distinction between a bookseller and a stationer was not established until the 1700s (and very often books are still available from a stationer’s) although the current sense of stationer is recorded in Blount’s Glossographia (1656).

The Bookkeeper by Philip van Dijk, ca. 1725

Pen n. instrument for writing. Probably about 1380 penne, pen; earlier pen quill pen, feather (1373); borrowed from Old French penne, pene, paine and directly from Latin penna feather.
The term pen name (first recorded in 1864) is a translation from nom de plume. The word penknife (appearing in Middle English before 1425) is so called because these small pocketknives were originally used to sharpen quill pens.

Image courtesy of Faber-Castell

Pencil n. About 1325 pincel artist’s paintbrush; pencel (about 1385, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales); borrowed from Old French pincel, peincel paintbrush, alteration of Vulgar Latin penicellus, variant of Latin penicillus paintbrush, pencil, literally, little tail, diminutive of penicilus  brush, itself a diminutive of penis tail.

The meaning of a writing implement made of graphite is first recorded in 1612, though pencil case for carrying graphite pencils is first recorded in 1552.
-v. About 1532, to draw or sketch with a brush; from the noun. The meaning of write or jot down with a pencil is first recorded in 1760-72.

All etymology entries from Chambers Dictionary of Etymology


  1. "With soutil pencel was depeynt this storie,
    In redoutynge of Mars of his glorie." Or:

    "Subtle the pencil that portrayed this story, In reverence of Mars and all his glory."

    Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, The Knight's Tale. 14thC.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.