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‘I am a child of books,’ begins Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s wonderful new picture book, A Child of Books.


‘I sail across a sea of words’. If you love books and words and stories and art and wit and whimsy … then this is the book to buy – a book  celebrating imagination and stories and words. This book inspires poetry, reading and art, a book where the boundaries of image and text blur as do the roles of illustrator and writer. It is, as the end papers give an inkling, a book built out of other books. Every page references other texts, texts that have shaped the author-illustrator pair in a poetic homage to books and imagination. 

This book had us wondering about the word  book . Students recognised immediately that book is a free base element. It is comprised of three phonemes /bʊk/ represented by the graphemes ‘b-oo-k ‘. The medial vowel phoneme is a digraph and can also be found medially in words such as good, hood, school, blood, hoof, stood, took, groom. As you you say these words you’ll realize the phonetic variety of ‘oo’ : /ʊ/, as in hood,  good, stood, took, but  /uː/ as in groom, swoon , school, loot,  and  /ʌ/  in blood, flood.  The digraph ‘oo’ can be found initially : ooze, oodles but only represents /uː/. The digraph can be final in too, woo but here its role is to ‘bulk up’ the word –  lexical words are longer than many function words, or, as in ‘too’, the ‘oo’ differentiates it from its homophones:’to’,and ‘two’. The final phoneme /k/ of  book is represented by the grapheme’k’.

Final /k/: I am often surprised that many can write these words accurately but have no understanding as to why a grapheme occupies a particular position – in this instance why ‘k’ and not ‘ck’– both are possible representations in the final position of a base element. Look at the  data a small group of students used to form their hypothesis. Hypothesize yourself then listen to their explanation. 


Both the digraph ‘ck’ and the single grapheme  ‘k’ represent /k/ in the final position of a monosyllabic word. Under what circumstances is ‘k’  used, when is ‘ck’  the grapheme of choice?

Appropriately  book has a riveting story and like fairy tales, forests are an integral part of the setting. Book is of Germanic origins and in it you hear the rustle of pages, like wind in the leaves of a tree – a beech tree to be more precise. Book  and beech are distantly related- both from Proto Germanic *bokiz “beech”. Some etymologists suggest that runes were scratched onto the wood of the  tree, others emphasise the writing was on wooden writing tablets, possibly from beech trees. The original denotation in OE was a ‘written record’ but by the 9th century book ‘applied to a collection of written sheets fastened together.’(Ayto)


Appropriately in A Child of Books the forest is made of books.

From books to housing them:

And what of the places where books are kept, libraries? The first written evidence of library was in Middle English in 1374 from Chaucer’s Boethius :‘The walles of thi lybrarye aparayled and wrowht with yuory and with glas. This arrived via Old French from Latin librarium “chest for books,” from liber (genitive libri) “book, paper, parchment.” The semantic evolution of ‘material for writing on’ to ‘writing, book’ is found in Latin liber which denotes bast,the inner bark of the lime or linden’(OED ). So from  bast with writing on it, to book. But there’s more to this tree filled tale- Latin liber can be traced back to PIE *lubh-ro- “leaf, rind”. 

Generous benefactors gave books to libraries as universities were established. In the libraria communis of Oxford, established by Bishop Cobham of Worcester in 1320, the books were chained to prevent theft – an indication of their value. Knives were not allowed in the library and the students were closely supervised by a chaplain to ensure no wet clothing or ink spills would damage the precious texts (Flavell). French does not use the same etymon for library; rather it turns to Greek biblion: ‘book’ as the basis for  bibliothèque :library. In French librarie is reserved specifically for bookshop.


Chained library of Hereford

‘And the preest shal wryte in a libel thes cursid thingis’ ( Bible1382 ,OED)

In English the Latin root liber has also led to  liberetto , the diminuitive of Italian libro and denotes the text of an opera or another vocal work, and to libel  arriving via Old French in 1297. Initially libel referred to ‘a little book or short treatise ‘( ‘el’ often a clue as to smallness) to a ‘ formal written declaration or statement’ to a plaintiff’s allegations, to a publicly  defamatory leaflet circulated to slander someone’s character and so by 1618 to refer to ‘any false and defamatory statement in conversation or otherwise… applied to a portrait that does the sitter injustice’. So from small books to scurrilous slander.

We discovered also that codex, ‘a manuscript volume: e.g. one of the ancient manuscripts of the Scriptures’ (OED) too has a woody, tree connection. Codex, a loan word from Latin cōdex , is the ‘ later spelling of caudex trunk of a tree, wooden tablet, book, code of laws.’This root ‘caudex’ has led to the present day English bases code and codicil (short writing or a small tablet).


From the Voynich manuscript 50r

Examine a codex  from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library  that still confounds cryptographers, linguists, botanists, historians and scientists – the Voynich manuscript , a codex created on vellum dated to the fourteenth century. Elaborate hoax or is there really a code to crack? Read here and here.

Colophon: This word was new to us and we hypothesized of Greek origins, the digraph ‘ph’ a reliable clue. Arriving in English in 1628 via Latin from Greek κολοϕών summit, ‘finishing touch,’ it denoted a ‘finishing stroke’ but by 1774  referred to ‘the inscription or device, sometimes pictorial or emblematic, formerly placed at the end of a book or manuscript, and containing the title, the scribe’s or printer’s name, date and place of printing, etc. Hence, from title-page to colophon.'(OED) Yet the story does not finish with a flourish here. Rather it climbs to even further heights!

The ancient PIE root *kel- (4) denotes”to rise, be elevated, be prominent; hill” and has led to Greek word kolonos hill and  Latin collis hill , columna “projecting object,” culmen “top, summit,” cellere “raise,” celsus “high”. The Germanic branch of the family from PIE *kel- (4) has produced Present Day English hill via OE hyll from Proto-Germanic hulni-.

 Below in the colophon – at the end of the manuscript of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Isaiah‘,  the self-portrait of  the scribe Hugo.


From the Bodleian Library  a self portrait of a scribe and illuminator. France,Normandy, the Benedictine abbey of Jumieges, 11th century,MS Bodl.717, fol.287v

Student-made matrices, after researching the Latin roots, reflect their understandings of related words around the free base elements ‘script’, ‘scribe’ and ‘scribble’ derived from the Latin root scribere ~scriptum: write, draw,make lines. The second and fourth principal parts of the verb- the infinitive and supine, are the parts relevant for English orthography. This gives clues as to the base elements that emerge in present day English.

Early Germanic borrowing of this Latin root led to Old English scrífan (-scráf, scrifon, ge-scrifen), ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance, regard, care for’. (OED) From the OE root the word ‘shrive’ ,’shrove’ and ‘shrift’ evolved.  Shrive refers to hearing someone’s confessions and the specialized sense of prescribing penances is seen in Shrove Tuesday, a word of the 15th century, alludes to the practice of confession at the beginning of Lent. Short shrift initially referred to the brief time for a condemned criminal to confess before execution later extending to little or an absence of consideration. (Online EtymologyDictionary)




Below a few other unusual scribble related words we enjoyed:

Scribbledehobble: a nonce-formation by James Joyce ‘on scribble … probably influenced by such a word as hobbledehoy, the etymology of which is obscure. Hence, the name given to one of Joyce’s notebooks ‘. ‘Of the fifty Finnegans Wake notebooks now in the Lockwood Memorial Library, University at Buffalo, the Scribbledehobble book is the largest… It contains words, phrases, clichés, anecdotes, ideas, scraps of information and other memoranda.'(1961 Times Lit. Suppl. 20 Oct. 754/3

Scribble-scrabble: a reduplicated word of 1590.

Scribblelet: a word  of 1599, now faded, once denoted ‘ an insignificant scribe or writer.’ We hope that this was not how our friend Hugo (above) was regarded.

Scriblearian:  ‘ A member of the Scriblerus Club formed c1713 by Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, and others, who produced the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (publ. 1741) in order to ridicule lack of taste in learning.'(OED)

What students have learned:

”Scripture’ is made out of two morphemes, the Latin roots scribere ~scriptum show that there is a twin base element. These two base elements have become scribe and script in present day English. These bases are free base elements because they stand on their own and don’t need affixes. At this stage of the year, I feel that I understand better how to divide up words into morphemes without guessing and actually finding a reason behind the morphemes. Dividing words into morphemes isn’t guessing or syllables, you need to find a proper reason in the root language. I still struggle with finding more related words because I don’t always know if these words make sense or not and how to find out if they do. One question I have from this work is how do I know if a word that I have just made from adding affixes to a base element makes sense?’ Delphine

‘While working with the Latin root  scribere~scriptum, I have developed my knowledge of words. I now am able to quickly recognize free and bound base elements, compound words, prefixes, suffixes, connecting vowel letters and many more word study elements. At first, I was slightly confused with most of them, but while creating the matrixes, I learned more prefixes and suffixes, and also understand the removal of the final, non-syllabic ‘e’s better. I realized that knowing roots can help my understanding of other, unfamiliar words that I might not have seen before, but if I happen to see a similar root, I can guess a denotation of the word.’Olivia

A scrivener was ‘a professional penman; a scribe, copyist; a clerk, secretary, amanuensis’ in 1375 a word which had evolved from the obsolete words escrivein esciveyn. The  unaccented’e’ is aphetic,meaning over time it fades.  These words trace back to Latin scibere. So from these Latin roots many base elements in English ‘script’, ‘scribe’,’scribble’ and ‘scrivener’ and from the OE borrowing ‘shrive,’shrove’ and ‘shrift’. All bases are free and a sense of writing, marking and recording lurk behind them all.

Victoria Lord writes of the difficult conditions endured by scribes, often in uncomfortable conditions. ‘They worked as long as the light was good enough to see by and their marginalia record their fatigue.’ Marginalia grumblings included:

“Let me not be blamed for the script, for the ink is bad, and the vellum defective, and the day is dark.”

“Cithruadh Magfindgaill wrote the above without chalk, without pumice, and with bad implements.”

“New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.”

“Writing is excessive drudgery . It crooks your back,it dims your sight,it twists your stomach, and your sides.”

“The book which you now see was written in the outer seats,” wrote one unhappy monk, “while I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.”( p.137, Book)

Marginalia grumbling did not just include the moaning about the conditions or the implements. Written also in the colophon are book curses– threats of excommunication and hell for those who dared to steal the texts.

Book Curses

‘May grace be to the reader, indulgence to the benefactor, anathema upon its thief’ (Anathema! Medieval Scribes and The History of Book Curses,Grogin)

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”

And our favourite book curse – each sentence begins in Latin and  ends in German. We were delighted to discover this combination of languages in verse is called macaronic and yes, connected to the pasta macaroni!

Hic liber est mein
Ideo nomen scripsi drein.
Si vis hunc liberum stehlen,
Pendebis an der kehlen.
Tunc veniunt die raben
Et volunt tibi oculos ausgraben.
Tunc clamabis ach ach ach,
Ubique tibi recte geschach.

This book belongs to none but me
For there’s my name inside to see,
To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming “oh, oh, oh!”
Remember, you deserved this woe.

‘So boc is writen wid enke’ (1250,  Meid Maregrete)

Ink : 1250 is the earliest sighting  of the word ink in an English text found by the OED. The process of applying coloured wax applied to the face then fixing it with heat was  in Greek ἐγκαίειν : agkaien  burn in,  compounded from ‘en’ in and ‘kaien’ to burn. English encaustic evolved  from egkaustikos. Greek ἔγκαυστον egkauston referred to the purple ink used by emperors for document signing. From these Greek roots, Latin encaustum or encautum developed and passed into French as enque. In 1250 this seeped into English as enke, inc, inck, ynke , inke, finally settling as ‘ink'(OED). However, as Lacey and Danziger illustrate in their chatty book The Year 1000, trees too are involved in this word as ink is created from galls found on oak trees. Read below:

‘It was an oak tree that provided the ink, from a boil -like pimple growing out of its bark. A wasp had gnawed into the wood to lay its eggs there, and in self -defence, the tree formed a gall around the intrusion, circular and hard-skinned like a crab-apple, full of clear acid. Encaustum was what they called ink in the year 1000, from Latin ‘caustere’ to bite because the fluid from the galls on an oak tree literally bit into the parchment, which was flayed from the skin of lamb or calf or kid. Ink was a treacly liquid in those days. You crushed the oak galls in rainwater or vinegar, thickened it with gum arabic, then added iron salts to colour the acid.’(Danziger and Lacey)

We also discovered in our search for related words, the obsolete term ink-dabbler denoting a scribbler. These paper-pedlers! these inke-dablers! ( 1616, B. Jonson, Every Man in his Humor , OED).

You might, like I did, assume the noun inkling is related to ink. It was the transitive verb inkle that appeared first in English, in the late Middle Ages where it denoted  ‘to utter or communicate in an undertone or whisper, to hint’. Beyond the first attested date of 1340-70, the OED inkles murky origins. The earliest attestation by the OED of inkling was in 1400 and offers no connection with pen, parchment, paper or ink . Yet The Online Etymology Dictionary goes further and hints at a tentative relationship to Old English inca “doubt, suspicion, question, scruple”. ‘Nyngkiling’ is the earliest representation of  present day inkling  apparently not a misdivision but rather ‘a nasalized variant of nikking “a hint, slight indication,” gerundive of the Middle English verb nikken “to mark (a text) for correction” (mid-15c.), from nik (n.) “a notch, tally”(Online Etymology Dictionary).

In the 1930s C.S.Lewis, JRR Tolkein, son Christopher, Owen Barfield and other writers and scholars associated with Oxford University expropriated ‘inkling’ as the name for their informal literary group, Inklings- a pun on the word ink and the diminutive OE suffix ‘-ling’ and thus created a playful connection to ink and writing.


Word Inquiry  in our class is often sparked by literature. Words and a book go hand in hand and using picture books to frame conversation around  year long themes are a fundamental part of our study . Words are not isolated, plucked from the air to dissect, rather they arise from our interaction with texts, from conversation. Jeffers and Winston write and illustrate the phrase ‘ For we are made of stories’ and I would add that stories are made of words and each word too contains a story, often written in books and printed with ink. As Samuel Beckett writes (The Unnamable) ‘the words are everywhere, inside me, outside me, […]  impossible to stop, I’m in wordsmade of words, others’ words’.

Other texts we love featuring books and libraries:

The Treasure Box by Margret Wild and Freya Blackwood, another book where the power of words and stories  and the resilience of the human spirit is a theme in a text where each illustration is a collaged from words, fragments of book and paper.

The Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers- a brilliant book by Jeffers collaged from books about Henry who devours books.

The Strange Library Haruki Murakami

For an informative read on the evolution of books read the beautifully presented Book by Keith Houston