Old English had setnes, which was pressed into service in Old and Middle English (setnesse) to translate various ideas in Roman law and Christianity: "foundation, creation, construction; size, extent; statute or law, ordinance; constitution; instruction; sentence; pre-arranged time." But modern use seems to be a fresh coinage of the 17c. The notion in the older word is "what is decreed or determined." Compare German Gesetz "a law, statute," which is related to setzen "to make sit, set, put" and other examples under law (n.)).
Entries linking to setness
"act of setting; state or condition of being set" (originally of the sun or another heavenly body), mid-14c., from set (v.) or its identical past participle. Old English had set "seat," in plural "camp; stable," but OED finds it "doubtful whether this survived beyond OE." Compare set (n.1).
Disparate senses collect under this word because of the many meanings given the verb. The sense of "manner or position in which something is set" is by 1530s, hence "general movement, direction, drift, tendency, inclination" (of mind, character, policy, etc.), by 1560s.
The meaning "permanent change of shape caused by pressure; a bend, warp, kink" is by 1812; that of "action of hardening," by 1837. Hence "action or result of fixing the hair when damp so that it holds the desired style" (1933).
"Something that has been set" (1510s), hence the use in tennis, "set of six games which counts as a unit" (1570s) and set-point "state of the game at which one side or player needs only one point to win the set" (by 1928).
The theatrical meaning "scenery for an individual scene in a play, etc.," is by 1859, from the past-participle adjective. It later was extended in movie and television production to the place or area where filming takes place.
Set (n.1) and set (n.2) are not always distinguished in dictionaries; OED has them as two entries, Century Dictionary as one. The difference of opinion seems to be whether the set meaning "group, grouping" (here (n.2)) is a borrowing of the unrelated French word that sounds like the native English one, or a borrowing of the sense only, which was absorbed into the English word.
word-forming element denoting action, quality, or state, attached to an adjective or past participle to form an abstract noun, from Old English -nes(s), from Proto-Germanic *in-assu- (cognates: Old Saxon -nissi, Middle Dutch -nisse, Dutch -nis, Old High German -nissa, German -nis, Gothic -inassus), from *-in-, originally belonging to the noun stem, + *-assu-, abstract noun suffix, probably from the same root as Latin -tudo (see -tude).
Old English lagu (plural laga, combining form lah-) "ordinance, rule prescribed by authority, regulation; district governed by the same laws;" also sometimes "right, legal privilege," from Old Norse *lagu "law," collective plural of lag "layer, measure, stroke," literally "something laid down, that which is fixed or set."
Rare in Old English, it ousted the more usual ae and also gesetnes, which also were etymologically "something placed or set."
In physics, "a proposition which expresses the regular order of things," from 1660s. Law and order have been coupled since 1796. To lay down the law (1752) is pleonastic (the "law" in the figure is biblical law, laid down from the pulpit). Poor laws provided for the support of paupers at public expense; sumptuary laws restrained excesses in apparel, food, or luxuries.
It is more common for Indo-European languages to use different words for "a specific law" and for "law" in the general sense of "institution or body of laws," for example Latin lex "a law," ius "a right," especially "legal right, law."
Indo-European words for "a law" are most commonly from verbs for "to put, place, set, lay," such as Greek thesmos (from tithemi "to put, place"), Old English dom (from PIE *dhe- "to put, place, set"), Lithuanian įstatymas (from statyti "cause to stand, set up, establish"), Polish ustawa (from stać "stand"). Also compare Old English gesetnes (above), statute, from Latin statuere; German Gesetz "a law, statute," from Old High German gisatzida "a fixing, determination, assessment," with sezzen (modern German setzen) "to make sit, set, put."
Words for "law" in the general sense mostly mean etymologically "what is right" and often are connected with adjectives for "right" (themselves often figurative uses of words for "straight," "upright," "true," "fitting," or "usage, custom." Such are Greek nomos (as in numismatic); French droit, Spanish derecho, from Latin directus; Polish prawo, Russian pravo (from Old Church Slavonic pravŭ "straight," in the daughter languages "right"); also Old Norse rettr, Old English riht, Dutch recht, German Recht (see right (adj.1)).
[L]earn to obey good laws before you seek to alter bad ones [Ruskin, "Fors Clavigera"]
updated on June 20, 2022