Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Linguistical musings: Bookish, Bibliophilic, Literary

It's sometimes illuminating to work in a neighborhood where a large percentage of our customers speak languages other than English -- that is, SoHo, a major shopping destination for European tourists. (Why they buy books in English when they don't seem to speak it fluently is something I've always wondered -- but we're not complaining.)

Recently I noted, not for the first time, the tendency for Spanish speakers to call the bookstore a "library" (leading to a certain amount of confusion since there is a New York Public Library around the corner). This makes sense, though, since the Spanish word for bookstore is libreria. The word for book is libro, and -eria is where an item is sold (zapateria for shoes, tabaqueria for smokes, etc.) The Spanish word for library, on the other hand, is biblioteca -- which also sounds familiar and logically related to books, for its similarity to bibliophile or bibliography.

So what, I asked the ALP (Adorably Literate Partner), is up with the split between libro and biblio? And where does the word "book" itself come into all of this? Surprisingly, he didn't know the answer off the top of his head (he often does), but the trusty internet revealed a backstory both logical and suggestive.

Liber, we find, is a Latin root word meaning "to peel." The reference is to the tree bark first used as a writing surface -- the pages which made up the first scrolls and books. Literary is also Latin, from littera, meaning a letter of the alphabet.

Biblio, on the other hand, is the Greek word for book (hence Bible, etc.) If you want to go even further down the wormhole, one online etymology dictionary suggests the word is

originally a dim. of byblos "Egyptian papyrus," possibly so called from the name of the Phoenician port from which Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece. The port's name is a Gk. corruption of Phoenician Gebhal (modern Jbeil, Lebanon), said to mean lit. "frontier town" (cf. Heb. gebhul "frontier, boundary," Arabic jabal "mountain")

Book, on the other hand, is pure barbarian Old English. It's also from a tree word, "bōc", which is similar to the Slavic words for "beech" -- probably the kind of tree most often used as a surface to carve or write words. I feel you can hear Old English it in the sound of the word -- the blunt beginning and hard ending, the weird two letters to make one sound in the middle. It's not as elegant as the Greek and Latin, but perhaps more down-to-earth.


So when we talk about literati, bibliophiles, and booklovers, or libraries, bibliographies, and bookstores, we're drawing on the entire rich mongrel history of the English language and its Latin, Greek, and Germanic ancestors. We're talking about trees, ports, and mountains; peeled bark and carved codex.

For some reason, I love this so much it almost makes me choke up. Think how long we've been talking about books, in how many languages, and how many different things writing and reading have meant and been to us. Think of all the weird unlikely clashes and interminglings of culture that gave us these many options to talk about these items and how they work and how we interact with them. Think of the roots of abstract ideas in the ancient, physical world.

What a story (Latin) there is in words (Old English).