If anyone should know about the history of words, it should be writers. Words are our stock and trade. Every word tells a story, and these words commonly associated with writing are no exception.
Let’s start with the most important word for writers; after all, if you don’t do this, you’re not a writer.
This verb comes from the Old English word writan, which means to score. Now before your mind goes into the gutter, this kind of scoring would have been done with an awl or some other instrument used to scratch or etch. The word ‘write’ appears to be of Germanic origins, with most variations meaning to carve, scratch or cut. Sothe nesxt time you’re sitting at the computer wanting to scratch your eyes out because the words aren’t coming, take heart in the origins of this word.
Well, there’s no point in writing, if no one can do this; however, the word ‘read’ has an origin that has very little to do with what you are doing right now. In Old English, the word for read was raeden, but it did not apply to text. It meant to read magical signs and omens. Much like a psychic does a reading. Back in the old days, when people wanted mystical events explained they would go to priests, who would do a raeden. These puzzling events that were explained by priests were called raedels – the source of the modern word, riddle. In a day when most people could not read, writing was as mysterious as a comet, and people would go to the same priests to perform a raeden on written texts. Thus raeden came to be applied in increasing frequency to the modern day act of reading words.
To understand the meaning of this word, think of quills. Back in the day, pens were made of feathers and were called penne. This word comes from the Latin penna, meaning feather.
This word comes from the Latin word papyrus – their name for the large reed the Egyptians used for writing material. The Egyptians would cut the reed into strips, soak it in water and press it together into sheets. This word, as with many Latin-rooted words in English, came to the language via French. The French word, papier, became papir in Middle English.
Anyone who has ever owned a wood burning set would be interested in the origins of this word. Ink derives from the shortened version of the Latin word, encaustum, meaning to burn in. The word caustic has similar roots. One of the earliest ways of writing was to burn words onto a piece of word, hence the origin of ink.
We can thank the Ancient Greeks and their desire to save a little money for this one. Writing materials were a scarce and expensive commodity in antiquity, so when Greek writers wrote manuscripts by hand, they did not skip spaces between paragraphs. Instead the made a little mark, called a para, beside the line in which a new thought began. The Greek word for write was graphos, and writing the little mark was referred to as a paragraph. Later, when paper became more common, writers began skipping spaces between paragraphs but the name remained as a basic system of organizing writing.
This term derives from the Old German word for beech tree, boka. Paper was not common during this era, and important information was burned into thin slices of beech wood. Boka later became the term used to describe the writing rather than the wood, and from there entered the English language as boc.
Ah, the holy grail for writers. This word comes from the Latin term, publicare, which means to ‘make public’. It entered Old French as publier, and from there became the Middle English word publicen in the early 1300s. Next time you publish something, go celebrate in a pub – both words come from the same Latin roots.