staff noun, staves (plural)
In Old English stæf means both ‘staff’ or ‘stick’ and also an individual alphabetic character. By extension, it also refers to letters or to writing. These meanings continue into early Middle English, with Orm calling individual letters ‘an staff’ and Layamon calling engraved writing ‘boc-stauen’ and ‘run-stauen’. By the mid-fifteenth century, the word emerges as a term for either a line of verse or a whole stanza. This re-emergence may be a semantic calque on the term bastoun (meaning both ‘stick, staff’ and ‘bundle’, and also ‘line’ and ‘stanza’), used in earlier Middle English and in later continental French for both ‘line’ and ‘stanza’. The word staf in Middle English means ‘stick’, ‘staff’, ‘club’ and ‘rung of a ladder’, as well as being used for a line of verse or a bundle of lines in a stanza.
The author of a mid-fifteenth-century English collection of proverbs based on Nicole de Bozon’s Proverbes de bon enseignment, the Summum sapientie or Liber proverbium, uses the term to talk about the number of lines in a stanza. In an epilogue addressed to his unnamed patron, the author says that he has translated from the French as carefully as he can ‘All be it the frenssh in foure staves be, / The ynglissh sevyn kepith in degree’ [albeit that the French text is in four-line groups, whilst the English adheres to seven in its order]. He acknowledges the amplification of his source’s French quatrains required by his preferred rhyme royal. Continue reading