Issue 186, page 1

Search Home FAQ Links Site map Book Store


New Ask Us Theory About

spotlight_1.GIF (2578 bytes)

Spotlight on...


Curious about the various uses of book we took a stroll through some of our dictionaries and, as ever when we take this winding path, we found more than we'd bargained for.*

Many authorities would have us believe that book comes from the same root word as beech, the notion being that our Germanic ancestors recorded their earliest writings either on planks of beech-wood or on strips of beech-bark. While this "books made of beech" idea is evidently a very popular concept (it has been copied from dictionary to dictionary), there is much evidence that such beech-books existed.

Beech-mast, the nut-like fruit of the beech tree, formed a major part of the diet of the Indo-European settlers of Europe. Perhaps this is why the Greek for "beech" (phagos, compare Latin fagus) so closely resembled their words for "eating" (e.g. phagein, "to eat", and -phagos or -phagy, "-eating").  The latter suffixes provides the English language with some splendidly pompous terminology: 

  • A phagocyte (literally "eating cell") is a white blood-cell which eats unwelcome intruders.

  • An anthropophagite is a "cannibal".

  • In theological circles, the "miracle of the feeding of the five thousand" is called the phagyphany.

  • Bibliophagists don't just read books, they devour them.

  • And an animal which eats its own dung (e.g. rabbits) practices coprophagy.

We are sure that some readers are still scratching their collective head over that -mast in beech-mast. They are asking themselves, "What can nuts possibly have to do with the superstructure of ships?" To which we blithely reply, "nothing". When used on its own, without the beech-, mast is the collective term for the fruit of the beech, oak, chestnut and other forest trees, when considered as pig fodder. It is an old Germanic word with relatives in Sanskrit meda, "to be fat", Gothic mat-s, "food" and even in the English word meat.

Some readers may find it odd that an acorn should be considered to be meat but, as late as the 1800s, meat was used to mean "food" in general. This would explain the curious reference in a 1902 copy of London's  Daily Chronicle to "Imports of fruit and other choice green meat". There is also mincemeat which is not, of course, minced meat at all but the filling for mince-pies. A dictionary describes it as "a mixture made of currants, raisins, sugar, suet, apples, almonds, candied peel, etc., and sometimes meat chopped small". Hold on, what was that again "...and sometimes meat chopped small"?! Yes, though it boggles the modern palate, medieval recipes frequently mixed meat, nuts and sweet fruit. Indeed, in its original form, mincemeat was minced meat. It is this, after all, which provides the menace in the expression to make mincemeat of [someone]. A threat to turn someone into "a mixture made of currants, raisins, sugar, suet, apples, almonds, candied peel, etc." just doesn't sound very intimidating.

Maybe the minutiae of mincemeat are not to your taste but perhaps we can tempt you with a morsel of trivia. The words  minute, minutiae and mince are all derived from the Latin minutia, "smallness". Fascinating, wasn't it? Now, was there perhaps some reason that we omitted the Latin miniature from the list of words derived from the Latin word for "smallness"? Why, yes, a very good one. Miniature is completely unrelated to any such words. Instead, it comes from minium or "red ochre", the pigment which medieval artists used when they painted those tiny paintings in the margins of manuscripts. This pigment, also known as rubric or ruddle, was used for highlighting chapter headings in books and special days in the Ecclesiastical calendar, known as red-letter days. Often, the chapter headings which were written in red ochre would include a brief summary of its contents. Thus, over time, rubric came to mean "a brief summary" and, eventually, "a rule of thumb".

* A note to pedants...

Yes, we know that the clause "we found more than we'd bargained for" ends with a preposition. Translating into Schoolmarm-ese we get "we found more than that for which we'd bargained" which may be "correct" but certainly isn't English as she is spoke.

Looking for more information on words?  Why not browse our bookstore?

  Shop at


Comments, additions? Send to Melanie & Mike:
Copyright 1995-
2003 TIERE
Last Updated 01/08/06 01:53 PM