On the Origins of the word ‘Book’

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These days, we may more frequently be found reading e-books, rather than using traditional paper means. But one thing which I rather like is that, although there is no paper and no leaves to be turned over, it is lovely to still be calling it a book, still using this word. This is especially heart-warming when you consider the origins of the word ‘book’.

Those who speak other Germanic languages, such as German or Swedish, may have already surmised the origins of the word. Today’s pronunciation may be fairly recent, but the word itself has a long and proud history. Let’s go back to Middle English to see how it was then.

Here we find a plethora of spellings: bok, buk, bak, boc, bowk among others.

Let’s take a look at this example, from 1380, from Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Prologue.

An old man..

That hadde a book with lettres of gold in honde.

The spelling here might seem very familiar, but it was just one among many. Another Middle English example, this one from slightly earlier, uses a different form:

Of þe firste spekeð þe holi boc

[the holy book speaks of the first]

The fragment in this second example is taken from the Homilies in Trinity College, and dates to around 1225. Here the form used is boc.

This brings us nicely to the next step back in our journey through time, to the Old English form boc. We can see an example here, from The Homilies of Ælfric, written in about 990:

Seó bóc is on Englisc awend

[the book is rendered into English]

In this particular case, the usage might seem very familiar. But we must not make the mistake of retrospectively applying modern understanding and meaning: at that time, a book did not mean a nicely bound object of neatly cut paper in the sense in does today. It would have referred to any piece of writing, any written document. But not only that. It is identical to the word used in Old English for ‘beech tree’, and indeed ‘beech’ derives from this same root.

The theory is that bóc came from Proto-Germanic *bokiz or perhaps *boks, (both roots unattested, back formations from the words that came from them, such as in English, German and Swedish), a root meaning ‘beech tree’. This suggests that the early Germanic peoples often used beechwood for their writing; their runes may have been inscribed on beechwood tablets.

The Proto-Germanic word *boks is thought to have come from an earlier source – Proto-Indo-European word *bhagos; “beech tree”. Why beech and not some other tree? Perhaps because beech bark is thin and can be easily marked, and the bark has the propensity to retain the marks. Some scholars speculate that the beech tree may have held spiritual significance for these people, thus it made sense for it to be used for sacred texts. Or perhaps simply this era of early literacy came about because of the abundancy of beech trees!

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