Stupid Question ™
May 24, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Which word is older, “book” or “tome”—and why do we have these two words for the same object?
A: “Book” was a word invented to signify any written document. It has narrowed to mean certain portable, published collections of writings.
“Tome,” on the other hand, was invented to signify a particular type of book, and today has broadened to mean nearly all books.
“Book” is a very old word, at least 800 years older than “tome.”
The roots of “book” go directly back to Old Teutonic, which inspired similar words in languages ranging from German to Icelandic.
It’s likely that the word is related to the Old English and Old Norse words for the beech tree (“boc,” “bece” or “bok”), the idea being that beech slabs and bark were used as writing material. Etymologists haven’t been able to connect all the dots on this, but book words do ten to be related to trees—think of “leaf” or “codex” (the latter from Latin for “trunk of a tree,” slabs of which were used for law tablets).
The word appeared in Old English by 725 as “boc” (the modern spelling dates to around 1375). The Teutonic root word apparently meant a tablet or sheet used for writing; by the time the word entered English, it referred to any written document, especially a land deed.
The modern meaning of any portable collection of written, usually sequential, pages is slightly more recent, dating to around AD 900.
“Tome” originally meant any one of the separate volumes comprising a single, multi-volume book (or sometimes, a significant section in any single volume). An artifact of the burgeoning publishing industry, the word was coined in the early 1500s or late 1400s. (The first printed use dates to 1519.)
The word entered English directly from French (where it meant the same thing), which got it from Latin (where it meant the same thing), which got it from Greek (where it meant the same thing). It ultimately goes back to a Greek root-verb meaning “to cut”—the same place we get words with “-tomy” endings such as “anatomy.”
By the late 1500s, the meaning of “tome” had generalized to include all books, though this usage (like most books of the era) was primarily academic.
While “tome” is fundamentally synonymous with “book” today, its usage remains typically poetic or academic, and suggests a large, old and scholarly book.
We originally had the separate words “book” and “tome” because they had very individualized meanings. While the centuries have brought them closer together in meaning, “book” still remains more generic and “tome” more specific.
Today, as in 1519, all tomes are books, but not all books are tomes.