The Grammarphobia Blog

Is a pamphlet a little pamph?

Q: I was lying awake the other night and wondering about the origins of “pamphlet.” I usually think of a term that ends in “let” as a smaller version of the root word: for example, “piglet.” But I’ve never heard of a pamph. Where does “pamphlet” come from?

A: We wish we could report that etymologically a pamphlet is a little pamph, just as a piglet is a little pig or a booklet is a little book. Alas, that’s not precisely the case. However, your musings aren’t far wrong. 

The word “pamphlet,” meaning a small treatise or other work consisting of pages without covers, entered English in the late 1300s, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It came from the Middle French word Pamphilet, which the Oxford English Dictionary explains was the French title of an anonymous 12th-century comic love poem written in Latin: Pamphilus, seu de Amore (Pamphilus: or, On Love).

The French word is a combination of the Latin Pamphilus and the suffix et, which is used to make diminutive forms of nouns.

So the French title Pamphilet translates roughly as “little Pamphilus.” (The hero gets his name from Pamphilos, meaning “beloved of all” in Greek.)

In the Middle Ages, the poem was very popular and was widely copied and passed around in the form of a thin leaflet.

The work “was also well known in England and is mentioned or alluded to in Chaucer” and other sources, according to the OED. Hence the English word “pamphlet” became a generic term for an unbound text shorter than a book. 

The English word, the OED explains, was then “reborrowed by French … and subsequently passed into many other European languages,” including German, Italian, Swedish, and Dutch.

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