English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII
WORDS AND CULTURE HISTORY

Words, as has been seen, in many instances, offer means of illumination by which one is able to penetrate the dimness of a prehistoric past. For the study of human culture within the historic period, also, words may often be made serviceable. As signs of ideas, words may be made to serve as sign posts, indicating not only the distance but the direction of human progress.

The names for the materials and implements connected with the art of writing have often been cited in this connection. Methods of writing in practice among the Teutonic ancestors of the English are revealed by the words used. The word write, it has already been remarked, originally meant 'to scratch' and indicates an early mode of writing by means of scratching on stone or metal or wood. That wood was a material used for records is known not only from other sources, but from the history of the word book, which is related in origin to the word beech. The custom of carving characters on pieces of wood and of reading the future by means of these has been alluded to in the preceding chapter. The English word read still retains as one of its meanings that of 'interpret,' as in read a riddle, a meaning associated with this early custom. The German word lesen, meaning 'to read,' goes back to the physical act on the part of the forecaster, of 'picking up' the bit of wood with the written character. German Buchstabe, 'letter,' meaning etymologically 'piece of beech wood,' goes back to the same custom. The corresponding English word, bōcstæf, did not survive the Anglo-Saxon period.

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