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Mind your language

Why is a book like a sarcophagus?

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

25 May 2019

9:00 AM

‘Is it like a packet of fags?’ asked my husband, less annoyingly than usual, but still in some confusion. I had been telling him why a book was like a sarcophagus, which I admit has the ring of a Victorian riddle.

It has long been accepted that book shares the same derivation as beech. I used to be reminded of that by Beech’s bookshop in Salisbury, now no more. After all, the Latin liber, ‘book’, came from a word for a tree’s inner bark, just as codex (earlier caudex), ‘wooden tablet’ or ‘book’ in Latin, came from a word for ‘tree trunk’. People made letters or runes on wood or bark.


Beech is in Latin fagus, as gardeners know, and both words come from a single origin, as did the Greek phagos, meaning a different tree, the esculent oak. The idea behind the Greek phagos was edibility, reflected in the related word phagein, ‘to eat’. A sarcophagus is an eater of flesh, sarx, sarkos.

The Old English form of beech was bok, and this gave rise to buck-mast, an obsolete word for ‘beech mast’, and also to the grain buckwheat. At least I thought buckwheat was a grain, but technically it isn’t, since it comes, not from a grass, but from a plant related to rhubarb and knotweed. That strange man Barnabe Googe remarked on it. Googe was an energetic translator in Elizabethan times and a zealous Protestant. But he writes so vividly in The Popish Kingdome, or Reigne of Antichrist (translating a book by Thomas Naogeorgus) that he makes the hated papists’ old customs colourful and attractive.

Anyway, in translating a treatise on agriculture by Conrad Heresbach, he says of blackwheat: ‘I had rather call it Beechwheate, because the grayne thereof is threecorned, not unlyke the Beechemast both in colour and fourme, differing onely in the smalenesse.’ It was not his own opinion, but that of his source, since Heresbach had written: ‘Nos faginum triticum malumus vocare quod granis sit triangularibus, faginis glandibus non dissimilibus.’

It took some rummaging to find the passage corresponding to Googe’s, but far less than it would have before these texts were put online. These days, such research is far less of a fag, as my husband might say.


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