The Grammarphobia Blog

State secrets

Q: Do you have a theory about the phrase “lying in state?” Why “in state?” Does it refer to the state or the nation?

A: The word “state” didn’t originally mean a geographical or governmental entity. When it entered English in the early 13th century, “state” meant a condition or manner of standing in the world. Think “status.” In fact, “state” comes from the Latin status, meaning standing, position, or condition.

Among the many definitions of “state” in the Oxford English Dictionary are these: “Status; high rank; pomp,” and “Costly and imposing display, such as befits persons of rank and wealth; splendour, magnificence.”

So men of stature in olden times were said to conduct their lives and their affairs “in state” – that is, with pomp and solemnity.

Similarly, a “man of state” was a high-ranking dignitary, and to “travel in state” was to travel in high style with all the trappings of office.

These are the meanings embedded in the verb phrase “to lie in state,” which the OED says is used when a celebrated person’s body is “ceremoniously exposed to view before interment.”

Beginning in the late 13th century, “state” was also used to mean the condition “of the Church, a country, realm, etc. in regard to its welfare and polity,” according to the OED.

It’s this sense of the word that gives us the modern political meaning; “state” was first used in 1538 to mean a governmentally organized body politic: “The kyng, prynce, and rular of the state.”

And that’s, more or less, the status quo.

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