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Dear Word Detective: Last night I was watching “Treasures of the Trust,” a program dedicated to looking at a different house each week that is owned by Britain’s National Trust, in glorious HD.  As you might guess they are all gigantic edifices, many several centuries old, that required a bazillion servants to operate and the GNP of Brazil to heat.  I want one, real bad.  I like to watch and daydream that I too was richer than the Queen and had butlers with butlers.   Anyway, common to many homes are “Rooms of State” which were designed expressly for when royalty dropped by and graced you with their presence, and they would be kitted out for maximum opulence.  It got me thinking about the phrase “stateroom” as commonly used aboard ship.  Any connection? — Chris Schultz.

Hey, me too.  I’ve always wanted to live in a huge castle, actually, provided that it had decent plumbing and cable.  It would have to have a moat, of course, to repel the in-laws, and ramparts from which I could pour boiling oil on creditors.  Servants would be nice too, if just to change the kitty-litter and brush the cat hair off the priceless tapestries.  A small dungeon would come in handy for copy editors who annoy me.  But I’d trade the throne for a decent desk chair.  This thing is killing my back.

There is indeed a connection between a “stateroom” on a ship and the “rooms of state,” also known as “staterooms” in a mansion.  They are, in fact, the same word.  Just why such places are known as “staterooms” is, however, a question with a fairly complicated answer.

It all begins with the noun “state,” which is derived from the Latin “status,” meaning “condition or manner of being.”  (We still use that Latin “status,” of course, as a separate English word with the particular sense of “condition or standing at a particular moment.”)  As you’d expect with a word both as old and as general as “state,” its definitions cover a lot of territory.

In addition to the common “condition” sense, “state” has historically also been used to mean “status” or “rank,” especially if that status is high or powerful.  Thus “a man of state” in the 14th century didn’t necessarily work for the government.  The term, now obsolete, simply meant he possessed great power and wealth.  One particular derivative of this sense was the use of “state,” beginning in the 14th century, to mean “costly or imposing display of dignity, solemnity, pomp and wealth.”  The “great dignity and solemnity” part of that sense is reflected in the phrase “to lie in state,” meaning when the body of a celebrated person is ceremoniously displayed before burial.

The “pomp and wealth” sense of this meaning of “state” gave us “stateroom” and “rooms of state.”  Abroad ship, the first “staterooms” were the Captain’s quarters, which were, not surprisingly, very grand and luxurious compared to the average sailor’s spartan accommodations.  In an aristocratic home, the “rooms of state” were the most expensively decorated, reserved for the most important (and important to impress) guests.  If you were lucky, and of sufficient social standing, those guests might include royalty, but the term “rooms of state” didn’t really have anything to do with “state” in the governmental sense (as in the phrase “state visit”).  The only “state” necessary to stay in the “rooms of state” was the state of being very rich.