The Etymology of a Book

We think of books as being filled with words and ideas, but they themselves are also a word and an odd one that. So how did the English word “book” come to be?

The term originated from several linguistic paths. Its closest relative is the Old English word bōc, which also meant book. As German speakers may guess, bōc shares a root with the Old Saxon word bôk and Old High German word buoh. The original meaning of these words was not “book” as we know it today, but rather referenced some sort of “writing-tablet, leaf, or sheet.”

Linguists believe that the various iterations of these terms are related to the Old English term bóc and Old Norse term bók, both of which reference beech trees. It is suggested that early written works may have been drafted on paper or tablets made from the bark of beech trees. It is, however, unclear if this is how the words really came to relate to one another. Oddly enough, Slavic languages share this “beech” connection as well. The Russian word буква (bukva) means letter and is also a cognate with beech, and букварь (bukvar) references reading workbooks for young children. Somewhere deep in Central and Eastern Europe’s past there was a strong connection between the word for books and what they were made from. (Romance languages are, of course, an entirely different story.)

It is fascinating that the relationship between words can sometimes be consistent across different languages, and that gives us hints about how those linguistic paths developed. I am no master of etymology, but I like learning what I can about it. There is also something strangely comforting knowing that though I may go different places around the world, many of them share an idea of what it is to be a book.

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Book, Oxford English Dictionary,, Accessed 8 January 2017.

21 thoughts on “The Etymology of a Book

  1. Wonderful, and just to add a little more of a twist, here’s some magical beech lore from

    “Whatever material words were inscribed, took on the power and magic of the gods which is why the Beech tree was held in such awe. Writing made knowledge manifest into the physical world and therefore allowed that wisdom to be passed on to future generations. Beech can help us make wishes, by scratching your wish upon a piece of Beech and then burying it. Say a simple spell or prayer as you are giving it back to the earth and then it will begin to manifest in your life.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to love flicking through a dictionary, a real paper one, and I would spend hours checking up on other words ‘around’ the one I began looking for. It could take ages but it was a lovely moment! With instant access to EVERYTHING, which is more time efficient, I have lost that lovely activity I used to do. Must get out all my old dictionaries out again!
        Thanks Kristen !

        Liked by 1 person

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