Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Origin of the English Word “Bible”

The English noun “Bible” is well known.  But do you know where the word came from?  Why do we call the book by that name?  

Like many of our English words, the noun “Bible” comes from French.  French, of course, is one of the Romance languages (i.e., a direct descendant from Latin), and thus we must look to Latin for the source of the French noun.  The French word, by the way, is bible.

The Latin word from which the French derived their noun “bible” is the word biblia.  In grammatical terms, this is a noun, singular in number and feminine in gender.  At first sight, It seems strange that the Romans considered this form of the noun as feminine and singular because the exact form of the noun in Greek, from which the Romans transliterated their word, is neuter and plural.

The transliteration of the Greek noun is biblia.  This is the plural of the Greek noun biblion.  In turn, the Greek noun biblion is what is called a diminutive form of the Greek noun biblos, which is sometimes written bublos.  When transliterating Greek words into English, the usual way of transliterating the letter “upsilon” (the letter “u” in Greek) is with the English letter “y” because this English letter approximates the sound of “upsilon” better than the English letter “u.”

Thus, the transliteration of the alternative word bublos turns out to be byblos.  What this word meant to the Greeks originally was a Phoenician city on the Mediterranean coast – Byblos.  

In time, the Greeks started using the same word in reference to a principal export of the city of Byblos (the Phoenicians were great seafarers).  That export was papyrus.

Papyrus was a plant that grew along the Nile River in Egypt.  The pith of the plant could be cut into thin strips and pressed into a material on which one could write.  Papyrus was effectively the paper of the ancient Mediterranean world.  The “sheets” of papyrus thus inscribed could be glued or sewn together to be rolled up (scroll) or put into book form (codex).

The Greeks easily made the transition from using the word biblion to refer to the writing material to the product of the writing, a “book,” especially by using the word in the plural (meaning “sheets” of papyrus).  Diminutive forms of nouns were sometimes used literally because the thing referred to was “small,” but they were often used figuratively as terms of endearment or for something familiarly known.


Based on the use of the Greek noun for scroll or codex in the sense of multiple sheets of papyrus was easily adopted by the Romans in the sense of a single “book” or “scroll,” thus causing the change from the Greek plural form of the noun to the Latin singular form of the noun, and then the use of the Latin word by the French became the origin of the English noun “Bible.”   

(This study was written by Dr. Ike Tennison, President of the Biblical Heritage Center, Inc.)

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure I will enjoy your new blog and I hope to gain insights leading to relief of the many questions I have carried for years about many of the inconsistencies, incongruities and down-right confounding (in terms of our current social / moral values) stories, verses, instructions and parables in both books of the Bible.

    It is the protestant Bible that I read but I hope your next blogs will explain the basic differences among all of the versions of this Book held sacred by "the peoples of the Book".

    Perhaps also you will sooner or later provide information on where so much Church dogma is or is not supported in the Sacred Word of God.

    ReplyDelete