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The Language of Books

National Reading MonthWe’re in the midst of March, and you know what that means: it’s National Reading Month! No doubt you’re in the middle of reading some Andre Dubus or Richard Masterson in celebration. But let’s take some time out from reading all those books and learn a little where our words for them came from!


We take it for granted, but the most standard word for the little paper treasures we love so much came from somewhere. And that origin was the Old English “bōc,” which itself comes from “bōk,” a Germanic word. They both share the same root word, beech. In fact, some Slavic languages the word for book is bukva, which has the same root as well.

Why beech? Well some scholars believe the earliest Indo-European writings may have been engraved on beech wood. Books were first bound like they are today in the medieval Islamic world. They were also the first to produce paper books after learning papermaking from the Chinese.


Origin of picaWhen measuring the size of a page or font, the unit of measurement is called a “pica.” Before that name, the unit was known as “cicéro,” called this because of its first use with Cicero’s Epistles, Ad Familiares. However, when the pica was created, the system was refined, and it became the norm.

Strangely, there are three pica measures used today. One is the French pica, where the term originated. Some even still call it the cicéro. It’s approximately 4.512 millimeters, or .177 of an inch. There is also the American pica, which is 4.2175 mm, or .166044 of an inch. Lastly there is the computer pica, which is 4.233 mm or 0.166 of an inch!


Translating a Twilight volumeAre you reading something within a series of volumes? Maybe you love Volume 2 of a certain sci-fi series but can’t stand the rest? Well you probably had no idea the word “volume” comes from the Latin word “volvere,” which means “to roll.” The reason for this is the name originates from the time when most works were written on scrolls. One rolled scroll was a volume, more specifically the 30 page scrolls that were accustomed before bookbinding got its start.


Speaking of bookbinding and scrolls, it also explains the origin of the word tome. A tome is another name for a long, epic book. This was because the Romans often wrote their scrolls to be in the hundreds of pages. The Greeks, who liked to keep their scrolls small enough to be carried in one hand, jokingly called these mega-long tales tomes, which means “to cut.” They obviously thought they could have used some editing!


translating kindleJust because it’s a product doesn’t mean the word didn’t come from somewhere! To “kindle” means to build or start a fire, or to ignite something. It also means to “light up” and “arouse.” You can see why the chose it with all this positive imagery!

The word kindle comes from kindling, which any camper knows is the name for the little sticks and twigs and such you gather to get your fire going. Kindling comes from the Middle English “kindelen,” which means “to give birth to.”

Oh, and one other thing: a kindle is also a name for a litter of kittens. Maybe it turns out the folks at Amazon are just a bunch of cat lovers after all?