book / beech

These two words demonstrate the perils of reading too much into Indo-European roots and highlight how much we just don’t know about the Proto-Indo-European language (or languages). Book and beech, the type of tree, appear to be related, but traditional etymologies of the words are largely based on conjecture and we can’t even say for certain that they are, in fact, related.

Both words go back to Old English. Book, or boc (with a plural of bec) is found as far back as the turn of the 10th century when it appears in a manuscript collected in Benjamin Thorpe’s Diplomatarium Anglicum aevi Saxonici in the sense of a charter or deed that designates ownership of land:

Ic him sealde ðæt lond on ece erfe and ða bec.
(I gave him the land and the books in a perpetual inheritance.)

The modern sense of work of literature or other writing dates to about the same period. From an inscription to King Alfred’s c.897 translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:

Ðeos boc sceal to Wiogora ceastre.
This book shall [belong] to [the town of] Worcester [lit. castle of the Wiogora tribe].

But the word book can be traced back further. It is attested to in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, and Old Norse as bok. This shows the form bok stretched across both the West Germanic and North Germanic branches of the family. Gothic, the only East Germanic language of which we have evidence, has boka, meaning a letter of the alphabet. From this we can deduce that the common Old Germanic form was *bok.

Beech is boece or bece in Old English. It is attested earlier, appearing in the c.725 Corpus Glossary as boece and in The Latin and Old English Epinal Glossary, written sometime before the year 800, as boecae. The form bece appears sometime before 1000.

The common explanation for the similarity is that both book and beech are from the same root and that the bark of beech trees was used as a primitive medium for writing. And backing this up is the Roman tradition that the Latin liber, meaning both book and tree bark is so called because bark was a primitive writing medium for the Romans. The assumption is that a similar process happened in the Germanic.

The trouble with the explanation is that the Germanic bok and boece roots don’t quite match and the old Roman tradition could simply be folk etymology at work. The words may indeed be related, but we can’t say this with high confidence and the explanation about beech bark being used for writing is stretching the available evidence extremely thin.

This is one of the reasons I rarely give the commonly accepted Proto-Indo-European roots in these pages. The reconstruction of PIE is very conjectural and often based on the sketchiest of evidence. We can say with a high degree of certainty that that languages we today call Indo-European are descended from a common dialect, or more likely cluster of related dialects, but reconstructing the specifics of what that dialect or dialects looked like is futile, the evidence that would allow us to do so with any confidence simply does not exist.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Dictionary of English Place Names)

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