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Word roots and routes: sit and stand

© GETTYNext in a series of posts exploring some of the ‘roots’ and ‘routes’ of English vocabulary.

The verb sit has the transitive, causal equivalent set, originally to ’cause to sit‘, or ‘put into a seated position’, but of course the meanings of set have diversified greatly, and the usual way of expressing ‘put into a seated position’ is to use the related word seat as a verb. Also related to sit and set are settle and the noun sitting.
Compounds of sit include babysit, babysitter, and bedsit or bedsitter.

From Latin sedēre (= sit/settle) we have:

‘dissident (someone who ‘sits apart’ from the others)
ob’sess (the meaning has developed through ‘sit opposite or in front of’, ‘besiege’, ‘occupy’) / ob’session / ob’sessive / ob’sessiveness
pre’side / ‘president (the one who ‘sits in front’) / presi’dential / ‘presidency (In these words, the ‘s’ is pronounced /z/.)
re’side / ‘resident (originally someone who ‘remains behind’) / resi’dential / ‘residence (In these words, too, the ‘s’ is pronounced /z/.)
‘sediment (material that sinks to the bottom and settles there) / sedi’mentary / sedimen’tation
session (cf. sitting)
sub’side (originally ‘sit below, under, lower’) / ‘subsidence
super’sede (originally ‘sit above’, ‘be superior to’)

Compounds of stand include bystander, outstanding and standstill. Two others, with older and less obvious etymologies, are understand (‘stand among’) and withstand (‘stand against’ or ‘stand in opposition’).

Other words related to stand / stood include stool and stolid and, more distantly, stay.

From the Latin verb stāre (stand) and its causal equivalent statuere (cause to stand) we have a huge number of words which include the elements sta- and sti-. The meanings of many of these words still contain notions of standing, remaining motionless, solidity or resistance to change. They include the following and their many derivatives:

circumstance (a factor or condition which is ‘standing around’)
distant (‘standing apart, separate’)
prostitute (etymologically ‘placed before’, ‘exposed publicly’, ‘offered for sale’)
stable, establish
status, static
station, stationary (originally ‘belonging to a military station’)
substitute (‘put in place of another’)

A stationer was originally a trader, especially a bookseller, who had a permanent place of business. A stationer sold ‘stationery goods’ but, in time, stationery became used as a noun. From my English teachers at school, I inherited the exaggerated notion that the difference in spelling – stationary or stationery – is extremely important, and I still notice when I see the wrong spelling used – which it often is, not surprisingly.

Next in this series: pair

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Jonathan Marks

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