On the Origins of the word ‘Read’

Thanks to our modern era of literacy, more people than ever before in history are able to read. And it is not just a mentally stimulating activity: it is also an intriguing word, with a long history, as changeable in meaning as is human nature.

At first glance, you might well wonder where exactly it has come from. After all, if we compare it with words that mean “read” in neighbouring languages, or languages that share sources with English, it seems quite different. Let’s take a look and see what I mean:


How about Romance languages, those that evolved from Latin? We know that Latin has been an important source of vacabulary for English. In French, the verb is lire, in Italian it is leggere, and in Spanish we find leer. All these derive from the Latin legere, meaning “read”. Not much help there for the English word!


You might wonder if perhaps it has come from a Germanic root. But in German we find lesen, in Dutch lezen and in Swedish the word used is läsa. The English ‘read’ would appear to be unrelated to these.


And it’s no use turning to the neighbours who share the same island; in Welsh, the verb “read” is darllen. No relation to the English word. Is it from Greek perhaps? Classical Greek has contributed a number of roots to English. No, the Greek word is διαβάζω (diavazo).


So where does it come from? Well, it is much simpler than you might think. Let’s trace it step by step. It comes from Middle English reden or redan. This may also be written as rædenne or readan.


Going back to around 1200, I found a simple reference in Dialogue on Vices and Virtues, an early Middle English prose dialogue intended to be a soul’s confession of its sins.


we on boke radeð, ðanne spekeð godd wið us.


([As] we read in the book, thus God speaks to us.)


So far, so straightforward, you might think. The meaning of the word would appear to be unchanged. But not so fast. Take a look at this further example from the Towneley Plays, from around 1490:


Now wote ye, lord, what that I reede, I counsell you..what best therof may be.


(Now be aware, Lord, of what I advise, I counsel you, what may be best for it.)


Here, you can see that read now means ‘advise’ or ‘counsel’. So ‘read words on a page’ is not the only meaning. Nor, it would seem, is it even the earliest meaning, as we shall see in Old English, where we find raedan. We shall start with a leap back to around 950, with quote from the Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici, a collection of Old English charters and documents.


God ðe rǽt and gewissaþ eallum

(God that rules and knows all)


But what is this? Does raedan mean rule? Indeed it does. And that is not all. It meant rule, advise, discuss, deliberate, work out (deduce) and even read as we know it today. A very useful word to know in Old English.


It has a number of cognates in other Germanic languages today: Rat means “council in German, råd comes from Swedish, and in Dutch we find raad. Even the word for the German town hall, city hall is Rathaus – place of counsel. So it would seem that the word is of Germanic origin after all.


But can we trace the word beyond there? Well, yes we can. It comes from Proto-Germanic *raedanan, meaning “advise, counsel”. And this in turn derived from Proto-Indo-European root *re or *rei, which may have meant “reason, count”. Interestingly, this is the source of the Greek word αριθμός (arithmos), from which we get, you guessed it, arithmetic.

On the Origins of the word ‘Write’

These days, writing is everywhere, and there is a far greater proportion of the population that uses or knows how to use forms of writing than may have been the case in the past. Writing has become a part of our daily lives.

Writing as an activity has a long history, with early examples dating back to the Sumerian civilisation around 5000 years ago. However, in this article, we are not going to look at the activity, but instead at the word itself.

To trace its path through history, we shall first take a look at Middle English. Here, with spellings as yet unstandardised, we can find an enormous number of forms, including wrīten, writ, writin, writon, writte, writh, wright, wrigth, wriȝte, wretene, wreite, writan and writtenn. Although all of these written forms may resemble the modern word, it is likely that the pronunciation was significantly different, and it was pronounced with a sound much like the past participle ‘written’, /i/ or /i:/.

Here is an example from 1450, from a collection of Middle English sermons known as the Sermons in Royal:

Crist put down is fyngere and wrotte on þe erthe.

(Christ put down his finger and wrote on the earth)

Now compare this with the similar fragment from the Wycliffite Bible, which dates to 1384, so some years earlier than the Sermons in Royal:

John 8.6: Jhesu, bowinge him silf doun, wrot with þe fyngir in þe erthe.

In both these examples, we can easily recognise the word and identify it with its modern counterpart. Now let’s go to the Ormulum, from around 1200, at least 180 years before the Wycliffite Bible:

Johan þe Goddspellwrihhte wrat onn hiss Goddspellboc Off Cristess Goddcunndnesse

(John the Evangelist wrote in his gospel of Christ’s divinity)

In this example, although it is still close enough to be recognisable to a modern speaker, there is a difference. The past tense is now wrat; the vowel has changed. This has moved the word closer to its form in Old English, as we shall see in our next example, from the Wessex Gospels, dating to approximately 990:

Hé wrát mid his fingre on ðære eorþan.

I have used the same reference deliberately, for better comparison with its later forms. It might strike you, as it did me, that although ‘wrote’ has now become wrát, the word for finger is much more similar to our word today than its Middle English versions! Going back to ‘write’, it should be noted that the word did not just carry the meaning that we know today, but also meant ‘engrave, inscribe’ and even ‘wound’. This is evident in this example:

Wrít ðysne circul mid ðínes cnífes

(Engrave this circle with this knife)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. These days, we are unlikely to talk of writing with a knife – engraving is far more likely to come to mind.

There are cognates, or words from the same root, of the Old English word wrítan in other Germanic languages, such as Old Norse rita, meaning ‘write, scratch’, German reißen, which means ‘pull, tear, rip’. Old High German also gives us rizan, meaning ‘write, scratch, tear’. A possible cognate is Swedish rista, meaning rip or tear. These point to a common root in the language that gave rise to all the Germanic languages; known as Proto-Germanic. The proposed root here is *writan. Unfortunatefly, we can’t trace the word any further back in time, as there are no known cognates in languages outside of Germanic.

Christmas crackers, coeliac, constraint and creativity

This week, I went for a coffee with my husband. On the table was a Christmas menu card, in the shape of a cracker. Except, it wasn’t actually in the shape of a cracker; it was just a straightforward, straight edged, open-ended cuboid.

What made it look like a cracker was the triangle shape cut out from each corner near the top, and a dark band of colour intersecting the excisions, giving the appearance of the bit at each end of a cracker, where your hand grips when you pull it. Even though each side was completely straight up and down. It was very effective.

My husband is a graphic designer, and he pointed out how the constraints presented by the form, probably chosen for cost reasons, had sparked creativity. It had pushed the designer to come up with something slightly unexpected, when complete freedom of form might have resulted in a more conventionally cracker-shaped object, which would probably have been less engaging.

This is why I enjoy working with poetic forms like the villanelle.

The word villanelle is derived from the Italian villanella – a folk dance or song – stemmed in turn from the Latin villa (farm) via villano (peasant or farm hand). Jean Passerat is credited with the first literary imitation of these rustic songs, in sixteenth century France[1]. Many well-known poets have written villanelles: Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, WH Auden, and Dylan Thomas.

Villanelles are composed of 19 lines of any length, grouped into five tercets (a stanza of three lines) and a quatrain (four lines). It has two rhymes: the tercets rhyme aba; in other words the first and third lines rhyme. The quatrain rhymes abaa. It helps to actually see these principles put into practice: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas  is a famous and very effective use of the form

But what makes the villanelle interesting, I think, is not structure but repetition. The first and third lines of stanza 1 are repeated in the other stanzas in a set pattern. Line 1 ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is repeated as line 6. Line 3 ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ as line 9. This happens again as lines 12 and 15. In the quatrain, these two lines together conclude the poem.

This allows the poet to play around creating subtly different meanings for those significant lines, using the rest of the stanza. For example, in  Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl’s Love Song, sometimes the line ‘I shut my eyes and all drops dead’ is the start of something happening, when followed by ‘I lift my lids and all is born again’, for instance. Other times, its meaning is an ending, reflecting its position at the end of a stanza: ‘And arbitrary blackness gallops in / I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead’. When I write in this form, I am often surprised by the creativity that is ignited by the need to find words that rhyme and also that make logical and lyrical sense.

This villanelle was inspired by another constraint requiring creativity: adapting a sticky port gravy recipe, so my coeliac mum can enjoy it. It’s a bit rushed and unsubtle, I dashed it off while making the gravy (I didn’t want to get too absorbed and leave the ‘bits’ to get to the wrong side of burnt!) starting with a few lines from the recipe itself, which kept referring to the ingredients as ‘bits’. I played around with the tenses, and changed one or two words on the repeated lines so it makes sense. When I have more time, I might go back and improve it.


[1] Lyric Forms from France, by Helen Louise Cohen)

On the Origins of the word ‘Book’


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!