This morning I was reading an e-book, which means, of course, that I was using an electronic device. It struck me how lovely it was to be still calling it a “book”, even though there are no leaves to be turned over, no paper. This is especially heart-warming when you consider the origin of the word.


The Middle English word book developed from Old English boc. It meant “book” then, too, but not just as we understand it today. It would have referred to any piece of writing, any written document. But what is interesting is where the word came from before that. It is thought to be 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), which meant “beech tree”. This suggests that those early people often used beechwood to inscribe on, their runes may have been 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. Or perhaps simply this era of early literacy came about because of the abundancy of beech trees!


One thought on “Book

  1. I cannot help thinking how pleasing the nature writer Roger Deakin would find this. Have you read ‘Wildwood’ which traces the world of wood, trees and their history? He would have been delighted by the thought of early man, sitting down and inscribing on paper thin scrolls of beech bark. Lovely Fagus, named after a god. That smooth bark evolved from its origins in the Tropics where it needed to deter epiphytic species from taking hold and it didn’t need that roughening which is, in the main, a guard against frost cracking in colder climes.It is super thin and the proximity of living tissue so close underneath means it scars very easily when it is marked, hence the writing. Beech bark also naturally curl and rolls as does birch so that makes me think of parchment scrolls, tightly bound in ribbon which replicate this.

    Beech was very popular because it multi tasked- its masts (edible nuts) fed and feed pigs, its leaves can be boiled up to make poultices, the wood smokes and burns well for fuel and food. It is a keystone species and ancient man would know this, I imagine even if that knowledge was tacit.Truly the mother tree.

    And then I started thinking of Springboks…but I will shut up now….

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