Why Books are Called Books

Jon asks: Why are books called that?

books“A portable volume consisting of a series of written, printed, or illustrated pages bound together,” the word for book (or variously booke, bokis, boke and boc) has been around for as long as the English language.

Early Origins

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED),[1] the Old English word boc was cognate with similar words from other languages, such as the Old Frisian bōk, Old Dutch buok, Old Saxon bōk, Old High German buoh, Old Icelandic bók, and Old Swedish and Old Danish bok.

Each of these variously meant a large written document, a writing table, a written text, a scripture, a story, a history, and/or even a letter of the alphabet.

Old English (700 A.D. to 1150 A.D.)

In England, by the 8th century, the term boc, meaning a volume of written words, was in use. The earliest known example is attributed to King Alfred who, in translating a book written in Latin by Pope Gregory I, toward the end of the 9th century, wrote “Ic bebiode . . . daet nan mon done aestel from daere bec ne do, ne da boc from daem nynstre.”

Contemporaneously, the West-Saxon Gospels, which translated the first four books of the New Testament into Old English, noted, “He pa boc unfeold.

Middle English (1150 A.D. to 1500 A.D.)

Still almost unrecognizable as English, boc continued to appear in early Middle English texts. For example, in Sawles Warde, written about 1225 A.D., it noted “He pa boc unfeold,” while in Owl & Nightingale, penned in 1275 A.D., the author wrote, ” On ape mai a boc bi halde, An leues wenden & eft folde.”

Note that, in this evolving language, some spelling were becoming much closer to our modern tongue, such as this from St. Dominic, written about 1300 A.D. “His bokes he solde and al is guod.”

Early Modern English (1500 A.D. to 1700 A.D.)

Although historians do not agree on the exact dates, the early modern English period is said to have spanned, roughly, the Tudor and Stuart dynasties (1485 A.D. to 1714 A.D.). From this point on, the English variants are much easier to read and understand, even though several were used.

In 1519, W. Horman wrote in his Vulgaria, “A volume is lesse than a boke: and a boke lesse than a coucher,” while in 1535, G. Joye noted, “There were so many false printed bokis stil putforth & bought vp so fast.”

By 1641, in More’s Hist. Edward V, W.S. wrote, “There coming . . into my hand a booke long since printed,” and finally, in 1674 the first modern spelling appears with “Would you anathemize, banish, imprison, execute us, and burn our books?”

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Book Facts

  • The Gutenberg Bible, circa 1456, is widely credited with being the first “substantial” book printed with moveable type in the West.
  • Of course, not everybody loves books, and you may be surprised by some of the classic titles that have been banned over the ages. These include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Salmon Rusdie’s The Satanic Verses, Dav Pikey’s Captain Underpants (series), Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories and Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things.
  • By far, the best-selling book of non-fiction is the Christian Bible. According to estimates, it is believed that more than 5 billion copies have been sold, and at least portions of it have been translated into more than 2,000 languages.
  • The Holy Qur’an, the collection of spoken revelations given to Muhammad, has sold over 800 million copies worldwide.
  • The Little Red Book, a collection of quotations from one of the founders of the People’s Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong, has sold over 800 million copies since it was first published in 1964.
  • First published in 1859, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities has sold 200 million copies.
  • Both The Book of Mormon and J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1954-1955 classic, The Lord of the Ring,s have sold about 150 million copies.
  • Over 100 million copies have been published of the 1968 Jehovah’s Witness/Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York’s The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life. This same amount of sales have been matched by Tolkien’s 1937 work, The Hobbit, J.K. Rowling’s 1997 book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Agatha Christie’s 1939 And Then There Were None and Noah Webster’s 1783 classic, American Spelling Book.
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  • Technically as nothing in the bible is scientifically correct it’s the best selling work of fiction, not non fiction

    • The Bible is a lot of things but it is not nor is it meant to be a science book.

      While I don’t think you can prove nothing in the Bible is scientifically correct, I think your definition of fiction vs. non-fiction is flawed.

      Would a book on philosophy be described as fiction or non-fiction?

      How about a science book on Copernicus’s theory written at the time which is not scientifically correct. Is that now considered fiction?

  • I know several sayings about books:

    You don’t have to travel the world because you can read about it all in books.

    To find out the truth you have to know which books to read – Seek and Ye Shall Find