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TWTS: Staving off questions about "staffs" and "staves"

If you have one staff, as in a stick, and then you add another staff, you now run into the question of whether you have two staffs or two staves.

At least, that’s the question that popped into our heads when listener Nadia Luis asked us about the verb “stave off.”

“Can you talk about why the phrase ‘stave off’ means to ward something off but ‘stave’ describes a narrow piece of wood?” Nadia writes. “I'm trying to imagine a connection between wood and warding things away but I think I'm straying into the absurd.”

Don’t worry Nadia – nothing here is absurd.

Let’s start with “staff,” as in a stick that’s carried to help with walking or used as a weapon. “Staff” goes back to Old English, and the plural form was “staves.”

By the 12th century, a staff could refer to a rod or wand used for ceremonial or official purposes. It could also refer to the narrow pieces of wood used to construct a cask or barrel.

Since “staves” was the plural of “staff,” people eventually re-interpreted the singular form as “stave.” One of many “staves” became a “stave” instead of a “staff.” Linguists call this a back-formation.

The singular form is where the verb “stave” comes from. The earliest uses of the verb meant “to break down a cask.” Over time, it picked up other meanings. It could mean “to put together staves in order to make or repair a cask” or “to drive a hole in or push inwards.”

The verb “stave” could also mean “to drive off by hitting with a staff.” This comes to be used figuratively to mean “to ward off.” For example, “Snacks can help stave off hunger,” or “She staves off stress with meditation.”

That brings us back to the question of the plural form of “staff” - how do you refer to your many sticks?

Usage guides have spent a lot of time discussing this very question, and the consensus is that sticks and rods used ceremoniously or as weapons are typically “staves.” In all other contexts, including music, more than one staff becomes “staffs.”

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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