Text is a word we hear used often today, frequently in reference to messages sent on mobile phones. It has come a long way! You may be thinking that this use of the word is not so very different from the idea of writing a text by hand, and that perhaps a text originally meant a written document of some kind.
As you will see, this is far from being the ultimate origin of the word, although it did pass through this stage. Its story in English starts in the late 14th century, where it meant “something written”, It came from Old French texte, or perhaps Old North French tixte, which can be dated to the 12th century, and which was used with a similar meaning.
Naturally, this is not the start of the journey for text. In came into French from Medieval Latin textus, which had a slightly wider meaning, including the Scriptures. This in turn derived from Late Latin, where it meant “written account, content”, and unsurprisingly, it came from Latin textus, which was used as “style/ texture of a work”. However, it literally meant “woven thing”, and is formed from the past participle of the verb texere, meaning “to weave”.
You might be wondering how “weave” came to have this meaning. One theory is that it may have developed out of a metaphor. In the first century CE, in his work Institutio Oratoria, Roman orator and rhetorician Quintilian wrote of the importance of choosing the right words carefully and joining them together in a “text”, a woven composition, a metaphor of words being like a threads that could be woven into a fabric.
The final part in our tracing of the journey of text takes us back to the Proto-Indo-European root *tek-, which meant “to weave, to fabricate”. Interestingly, this makes it a cognate of the Greek word τέχνη (techni), today meaning “art”, from which is formed the word “technology”.
Even today in modern Italian, while testo is used to mean “text”, its cognate tessuto is also used, to mean “fabric, cloth”, both words tracing their origins to texere. Modern French also uses texte as “text”, and you will recognise texere in tissu, which means “fabric, cloth”. In Spanish, these two words are texto and tejido respectively. While German also uses the word Text in the context of the written word, the fabric association has not travelled to it from Latin or Romance languages. Similarly, in Welsh, the origins of the word for “text” can easily be recognised: testun, while words for “cloth” and “fabric” are quite different.
An interesting note is that while Greek words referring to making and building are related to *tek-, the Greek word for text is not. It is κείμενο (keimeno), from κείμαι (keimai), meaning “lie, be placed”, and is directly related to the word for “sleep” (“κοιμάμαι”, koimamai), and is also a cognate of “coma”.
Perhaps the most logical word for “text” that I have found so far comes from Hungarian, where it is szöveg, which developed from the word szó, meaning “word”. This explains why it can also mean speech, as obviously words can be both written and spoken.
Similarly logical, leaving the Indo-European family and travelling to Altaic Turkish, the word for “text” is yazi, a word that comes from the verb yaz, which translates as “write”.