Q: In The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, one of the characters, an agricultural extension agent, tells his daughter that the word “book” comes from “beech,” since Sanskrit was once written on beech bark. Is that true?
A: “Book” may come from “beech,” but Sanskrit was probably written on birch bark in ancient times, not beech bark.
Many etymologists believe the ultimate source of “book” could be “beech,” though others think the two words evolved separately.
John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, for example, says versions of the word “book” are “widespread throughout the Germanic languages,” and “point to a prehistoric Germanic bōks, which was probably related to bōkā ‘beech.’ ”
The connection, Ayto explains, is “that the early Germanic peoples used beechwood tablets for writing runic inscriptions on.”
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart, agrees that “book” and “beech” could be related “on the supposition that early inscriptions may have been made on tablets of beech wood.”
But as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Objections to this etymology have been made on several grounds,” especially because of morphological, or structural, inconsistencies in different versions of “book” and “beech” in West Germanic languages, which include English.
“However, recent accounts have defended the hypothesis that book n. and beech n. are ultimately related,” the OED adds, and supporters of the “beech”/“book” relationship argue that the morphological discrepancies may have been used to make distinctions in semantics, or meaning.
As evidence that the name of something, such as a book, may be derived from the material it’s made of, etymologists cite a parallel case in which the Sanskrit term bhūrjá- means “birch tree” when it’s masculine and “birch bark used for writing” when it’s feminine.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins, supports the view that “book” comes from “beech.” It says both words are ultimately derived from bhāgo-, a Proto Indo-European term for “beech tree.”
In addition to “beech” and “book,” American Heritage says, the reconstructed prehistoric root has also given English the word “buckwheat.”
The first OED example of “beech” (spelled boecae in Old English) is from the Epinal Glossary, believed written in the late 600s: “Fagus, boecae.” The Old English scholar Alan K. Brown has described the Latin-English glossary as “the earliest body of written English.”
The earliest OED example of “book” (boc in Old English) is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of a sixth-century work by Pope Gregory:
“Ond ic bebiode on Godes naman ðæt nan mon ðone æstel from ðære bec ne do, ne ða boc from ðæm mynstre” (“And I command in God’s name that no man take the bookmark from the book or the book from the monastery”). We’ve expanded the citation to add context.