The AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers show is going on now. They have a blackboard at the display (164 Fifth Avenue, NYC) which shows a definition of “book”. Visitors to the show are invited to pick up a piece of chalk and add their own definition. The definition printed at the top of the board includes a derivation from the German for beech tree: die Buche (beech) to das Buch (book). In German trees tend to be feminine, and the ability to use the same word with a gender change to designate something else may be a useful feature for a language (cf French le tour, as in Tour de France and la tour as in Tower of London). But why books would sprout from the beech rather than some other tree is for me the real question.

After an extensive discussion of the word’s varying gender in different Germanic languages, the OED etymology for “book” tells us “Generally thought to be etymologically connected with the name of the beech-tree, Old English bóc, béce, Old Norse bók < (see beech n.), the suggestion being that inscriptions were first made on beechen tablets, or cut in the bark of beechtrees; but there are great difficulties in reconciling the early forms of the two words, seeing that bôk-s ‘writing tablet’ is the most primitive of all.” So they trace the connection back before the book as we know it (what today is beginning to be called the p-book — will that really stick?) was invented.  I had been speculating that it might have been because the boards in which early books were bound were (often?/ always?/sometimes?) wood, and that maybe beech wood was favored over others — for which of course I have no evidence, but given the earlier existence of a beechen writing tablet, the need to look into this speculation evaporates. What would a writing tablet be? Something like a clip board, or as the OED entry suggests a board into which you’d carve a message? (The Romans had them as wax sheets contained in wooden covers.) I guess one can see the process by which the word for writing tablet would come to cover the thing we know as a book, just as slate might easily become the word for iPad.

I didn’t write my definition on the AIGA blackboard, as I don’t have one. In this connection see my earlier post This is my book. The OED’s take on this is pretty good: “It is not now usual to call a (modern) literary composition in manuscript a ‘book’, unless we think of its printing as a thing to follow in due course. In sense 3b every volume is a ‘book’, whilst in sense 3c one ‘book’ may occupy several volumes; and on the other hand one large volume may contain several ‘books’, i.e. literary works originally published as distinct books. No absolute definition of a ‘book’ in this sense can be given: in general, a short literary composition (especially if ephemeral in character, and therefore also in form) receives some other name, as tract, pamphlet, sketch, essay, etc.”

See also This is my book.