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 ‘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!