The magic of book

The words that we associate with books and their production carry within their meanings the long history of book-making and contain some interesting surprises, particularly the survival of the word book itself.

Modern books (ebooks aside) are made from pages or leaves of paper stitched or glued together between card that are printed with a permanent message. They are meant for continual circulation and use. International Book Day is celebrated on the 23 April every year.


Bible—the Devils Codex
Bible—the Devil’s Codex

The common word for a book in Ancient Greece was biblion. It was derived from Byblos, the Phoenician port (modern Jebeil in Lebanon) from which Egyptian papyrus was imported. The Bible gets its name from a shortening of the Ancient Greek ta biblia to hagia meaning the holy books. English retains biblio- in bibliography, the list of books referenced in an academic work, and in bibliophile, for a book-lover.

Paper, card and chart

Most everyone would know that the word for paper comes from papyrus. The Egyptians made the original paper by gluing strips of the papyrus reed together in vertical and horizontal layers. This created a rectangular page.

The word for page comes originally from the Latin pagina for the strip of rectangular papyrus fastened to the others. Pagina was derived from pangere meaning to fasten, referring to the gluing together of the sheets. The word card comes from the Greek word khartes for a layer of papyrus. Chart is a 16th century French adaption that was used for map.

Scroll and volumes

The rectangles of papyrus (up to about thirty) were glued together to form a long roll known as a scroll. This was the earliest form of book and the Romans called it a volumen, from the verb volvere, to roll. English gets volume from this. However, the English word scroll is 13th century from scrowe (with a slight change to sound like roll) originally from Frankish skroda meaning scrap or shred.


There was no limit to the length of a scroll. But the longer they were the heavier they became. Accordingly, the scholars who had to read them, cut up the longest rolls into shorter lengths called tomes. Tome, in Latin, means to cut. Tome in English has, ironically, come to connote a large and scholarly book.


At the same time as scrolls were being used by academic Romans, wax tablets were used by the working Romans as notebooks (or jotters). A notebook was called an album and consisted of a thin sheet of white wood (albus being the Latin for white) covered with a film of dark wax, which was written on using a metal or bone stylus to score the wax thus creating white writing.

Codex and codicil

When several albums were combined they were held together by a cord running through a corner. Such a stack of albums was known as a codex, meaning a block of wood. A codex was sometimes used to write a book of laws, this meaning has come directly to English. A small codex took on the Latin diminutive codicilli—a little codex, which, as codicil in English, refers to a supplement to a will or document.


A schedule originally referred to the slips of paper attached to a document in an appendix. This came to English from Old French, cedule, from Latin schida for a strip from a papyrus sheet; originally from Greek, skhida for splinter.


German parchmenter, 1568
A German parchment maker from 1568

In Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries parchment started to significantly replace papyrus for writing. Parchment is made from stretched animal skins treated with lime (in a process quite different to curing leather). The word, parchment, has had a slow evolution—lately from French, perchemin; from Latin pergamenum; and originally from Greek pergamenon, which meant of Pergamon, the modern city of Bergama in Turkey. It was from Pergamon that Europe sourced all its early parchments.


Vellum was a superior parchment; it was thinner and smoother because it was made from calfskins (or sometimes lambskin or kidskin). The word, vellum, is directly related to our word for calfmeat, veal, and comes to English from the Norman French velin, for parchment made of calfskin. The Old French word for calf was veel (modern French veau).


Parchment was sometimes re-used by cleaning the original writing off. Such a manuscript was called a palimpsest from the Greek palimpsestos meaning scraped again.

The shift to parchment and vellum, which were smoother than papyrus, caused changes in writing. The use of uncial script (from Latin uncialis meaning of an inch, inch-high), an upper-case script using rounded, simple, pen strokes is a direct result.


Parchment sheets were not cut before they were sold but creased and folded and made into a folio. The size of the folio was dictated by the size of the skin. Thus the terms quarto, octavo, duodecimo relate to folios created from folding the parchment, respectively, four, eight, or twelve times. Folio is from the Latin word folium for leaf (directly related to foliage).


Vindolanda wooden writing tablet with a party invitation written in ink, in two hands, from Claudia Severa to Lepidina.
Vindolanda wooden writing tablet with a party invitation written in ink, in two hands, from Claudia Severa to Lepidina.

So far our little history shows the dominance of Latin, Greek and French language on our book words. The medieval church and Latin scholarship obviously dominated the vocabulary of book production for the last two thousand years. But, yet, there is the word book itself, which has a completely different history. Not from the academic world but from the vernacular of “low” Anglo-Saxon.

Book comes into English from the Germanic languages where it is still bok in the Scandinavian languages (bog in Danish), boek in Dutch and buch in German. Buch is originally derived from the Old German word buche for beech.

Why beech? It is probably from the early use of beech-wood split into tablets to write on. When the Romans left Britain and Western Europe the locals continued to write their notes not on parchment or papyrus and probably not on what the Romans had called albums. The album tablets were made from woods that were not native to Britain.

Evidence from Vindolanda, a fort near Hadrians Wall, in England shows that the local Romans were also using thin leaves of wood less than 1 mm thick and about 20 cm long and 9 cm wide to write notes on with ink. The tablets were cut from sapwood of young trees; the writing was made using a pen with ink made from carbon, gum arabic and water; and once completed they were folded over so that the writing on the inner faces was protected.

When the Romans had gone the locals wrote not in Latin or Greek but in adapted letter symbols such as the runes of Scandinavia and the ogham of Britain. The Celts associated their religion or magic with the folklore of trees and their writing was also associated with trees. The 25 characters of the ogham alphabet were given the names of sacred trees and plants. But there are no surviving wooden tablets with runes or ogham script so how do we know that they existed? We don’t, however there is one piece of evidence. That piece of evidence is that most of the Germanic languages that were spoken in Britain and Northern Europe managed to keep a word for books that refers not to papyrus or parchment but to wood.

So when we speak of books we do not associate with the religious or academic writing on papyrus or parchment but with the beech tree tablets on which our ancestors wrote their magical characters.

For more on books—Can you have too many books?