A staple item is an essential, something that holds your life together. Sort of like a staple holding sheets of paper together.

Thirty years ago, starting university, I bought a stapler and a box of staples. I still have the stapler; it looks almost new (as many things and people do at 30 years of age). I still have the box of staples too. Haven’t finished it yet. But when I need it, I need it.

Some things can be staple items and yet not get used often.

Later this month I’ll be going to a 30th anniversary reunion for my high school class. It will be the first time I will have seen most of the people there since we graduated, though from their Facebook pictures I can see they seem to have held up well. I do not think we will all just pick up where we left off. Actually, I hope we won’t; we’re more mature now, and I for one have no intention of being the dweeb I was then. We’ll all be back in Banff, a place I only get to every year or two now – but a place that is still essential for me. It’s reasonably stable, though it changes, and it is a staple of my existence: it’s holding the sheets from the 1980s together with the sheets from now – and years to come.

A staple is something stable, or something that keeps you (or other things) stable. Or both.

Are staple and stable related? Not etymologically. But staple and staple are. They both come from the same original Germanic word, stapel, meaning ‘pillar, post, block, beam’. How does a pillar become a standard good or a bent bit of metal? The history is fasten-ating. It proceeds in two prongs from the original.

On the one side you have the pillar or pillars associated with the marketplace; by way of Latin stapula and French estaple and back to English you get a word for an emporium or mart, and from that a name for a town or place where by royal authority the merchants had exclusive purchase rights on a certain class of good for export. From that, the principle industry or output of a place; from that, an essential commodity or basic foodstuff.

On the other side you have a pillar or post, and from that somehow you come to a U-shaped piece of metal driven into a pillar or post to serve as a hook-hold or rope attachment. Make this big metal staple a somewhat smaller item meant for driving into things to hold them together and we have that staple of offices and university rooms. Everyone has them, but they don’t always use them. The stapler on my desk at work is used every couple of years. The one at home is used more, mainly by my wife (whom I have had for half as long) for invoices and such like. But yes, it is still on its first box of staples.

Words travel together sometimes, commonly collocated as though bound with a staple. What word is seen most often near staple? You may think it’s food, but it’s not – though that’s a close second. It’s become.

Become? For something that holds fast, that is so stable and essential? Yes: what is now essential was once unknown. Tomatoes are a staple of Italian cuisine, and chili peppers of Indian, but both were imported from the New World; they gained their staple status within the last few centuries. Here are some examples from various publications cited by the Corpus of Contemporary American English: “huge paydays have become a staple of American corporate life”; “mocking the fans’ choices has become an annual staple of the baseball writer’s schedule”; “dollar menus have become a staple of many fast-food restaurants in New York”; “Gesell devised what would become a staple of parenting advice books, the illustrative anecdote”; “Crime has become a staple feature of many cities in Latin America”; “This image has subsequently become a staple of tribology lectures and overview articles”…

So what is a staple? Something ubiquitous, expected, standard, perhaps almost hackneyed at times… A thing has become a staple if it has gained an essential place, if it has moved from “that’s a new thing” to “of course.” It can be something monthly, even something annual (though I don’t know about tridecennial), perhaps even something sporadic but expected. Something you were once unaware of but would not now do without: it holds the pages of your life together, even if not needed often. Something that has been around for 30 years but is still new, or something that was unknown three years ago but is now pinned prominently on the bulletin board of your day. A stipulation. A staple.

One response to “staple

  1. The Hebrew word for a matchmaker or marriage broker is SHaDKHaN. The same word is Hebrew slang for a “stapler”. It joins things together..

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