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Turning over a new leaf

28th May 2012 - 12 Midnight Ben Sweeney

 

Curiosity leads Ben Sweeney from our Charing Cross Road branch to wonder how words we use so widely and unthinkingly in our pursuit of reading pleasure came to the English language.

 

The contents of books are normally fantastic (even the badly written books), quite literally. Most books are designed to take you somewhere else. Even the most boring of academic books are trying to remove you to a different place.


Books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied. Often I see a book as its potential to be somewhere else, I forget it is first and foremost heavily reconstituted wood, bound with glue and thread, and jacketed in more wood. Familiarity begets forgetfulness.


Then I pick up a box of books that tugs me forward with its weight, and I have to remind myself that the reason it's so heavy is that it is almost exclusively tree. This is not really a surprise; it's just one of those truths I take for granted and casually forget, like the lion on the two pence piece.


Just as time and exposure casually mask the nature of a book, so time and exposure mask the original usage of the word 'book'. Before it's specialisation to mean a selection of bound papers in a cover, the word 'book' used to refer to any written document. The Tom, Dick or Harry of written materials.


It comes from the same place as 'beech', probably because when Old English was still being used people were still carving words in beech trees: 'Ben wære hér'


In many languages the word for 'leaf' is the same word for 'page' or 'paper'. 'Page' doesn't mean 'leaf' though ('paper' on the other hand is fairly obviously connected to 'papyrus'). No, 'page' made it's way into English via French and Latin from the Proto-Indo-European root 'pag-', 'to fix', as in 'join', not 'mend'. But the connection's still there in English, we still take a leaf out of someone else's book and read 'leaflets'.


Earlier I was browsing the science fiction section, which is where all this interest in book related etymology started, trying to find another doorstop to lose myself in, when I found myself, as I'm wont to do, wondering where that word came from. Browse: I can think of many words that sound similar (brow, brown, peruse) and many phrasal synonyms (look through, check out, thumb through, etc.), but no synonym that means the same thing. Sometimes this feels quite rare in English with its numerous Latin/Germanic pairings.


And then a word like 'browse' comes along and deals with this issue by making the journey from Proto-Germanic, through French and into English.


Probably, it comes from the Proto-Germanic word 'brustjan', which meant 'to bud', and later from Old French 'brost' which is a word for a freshly sprung shoot (add -er and it becomes the verb 'to bud').


Which I think adds a rather pleasant dimension to the idea of 'leafing through' a book: books are where new leaves are turned and budding interests can first be satisfied.


 

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