Peeling the library

Today’s word, library, comes from the Old French librairie, a ‘collection of books’, which is a nominal use of adjective librarius, ‘concerning books’, from Latin librarium, ‘chest for books’, from liber (genetive of libri), ‘book, paper, parchment’, originally the ‘inner bark of trees’, probably a derivative of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) base *leub(h) – ‘to strip, to peel’.

In French the word librarie means bookshop. A French library is a bibliothèque, which comes via the Latin bibliothēca, from the Greek βιβλιοθήκη (bibliothêkê), ‘a place to store books’, which breaks down into βίβλος (biblos), ‘book’, and θήκη (thêkê), ‘chest’.

Variations on the theme of bibliothèque are used in a number of other languages, including:

Dutch – bibliotheek
German – Bibliothek
Greek βιβλιοθήκη (bibliothiki)
Italian/Portuguese/Spanish – biblioteca
Russian – библиотека (biblioteka)

In Welsh, a library is a llyfrgell, from llyfr, ‘book’ and cell, ‘cell’, while in Irish it’s leabharlann, from leabhar, ‘book’ and lann (not sure of it’s meaning*). In Chinese, a library is 圖書館 [图书馆] (túshūguăn) = ‘map book house’.

It seems that the word library, or something like it, is not used in it’s English senses in many languages. The only ones I can find are Sesotho and Tswana (laeborari), Tsonga (layiburari) and Venda (laiburari), which appear to be loanwords from English. The Basque word for library, liburutegia, might possibly have Latin or Greek roots.

[Addendum] *lann in Irish is an archaic/obsolete word that means floor, enclosure or church. It comes from the Old Irish lann (building, house, land, plot, plate), from the Proto-Celtic *landā ((open) space, land), from the Proto-Indo-European *lendʰ- (land, heath). It is cognate with the Welsh word llan (church, parish, monastery, yard, enclosure, village), the Spanish landa (plain), and the English words land and lawn [source].

Sources: Online Etymology Dictionary, Wiktionnaire, Yawiktionary

12 thoughts on “Peeling the library

  1. “Knižnica” in Slovak and “Knihovna” in Czech are both based on the word “kniha”, a book.

  2. 図書館 [としょかん] (toshokan) in Japanese, unsurprisingly just a “Japanization” of the Chinese word.

    As a side note, when used in Japanese, the first character in the Chinese word [圖] means any kind of drawing, while the one in the Japanese word [図] specifies a map. The simplified Chinese version [图] has no meaning in Japanese.

  3. Just FYI, 圖 tú can mean any of the following: diagram; to plan; picture; drawing; chart. It doesn’t necessarily mean map.

    The thing with Chinese is when a character stands by itself, it has a very abstract and general meaning. It’s only when combined with other characters to form words when it becomes more specific. 🙂

  4. Simon said: “In Welsh, a library is a llyfrgell, from llyfr, ‘book’ and cell, ‘cell’, while in Irish it’s leabharlann, from leabhar, ‘book’ and lann (not sure of it’s meaning).”

    What is interesting is that a number of public places where people gather for cultural activities end with ‘lann’ in Irish:

    As you mentioned: Leabharlann (library) from leabhar (book)


    Deochlann (pub) from deoch (drink)
    Pictiúrlann (cinema) from pictiúr (picture)
    Amhraclann (theatre) from amhrac (sight)
    Spórtlann (sports hall)

    And let’s not forget Belfast’s own Cultúrlann.

    I am sure others can think of other examples of public places that end in ‘lann’.

  5. Just to give you one more for Celtic: in Breton, it’s lenndi (lenn means reading; I assume di is a mutation of ti – house) or levraoueg (levr means book, not sure about the ending).

  6. In Hungarian we use the word “Könyvtár”, but we can also say “Bibliotéka” from German origin. The latter one is quite old-fashioned now.

  7. Helo. Leabharlann: ann could be “the place” where there are books.
    I don´t know about the “l”, though.
    And a curios thing is that in Spanish a biblioteca is the place where you go and read books, and then leave them there(the satate library for example). But a libreria is the place where you go to buy books. While in english a book store is where you buy books, & a library where you read them. I had a cross-cultural missunderstanding while in the U.S. jeje.

  8. In Arabic, مكتبة maktaba, which can also mean bookstore and is the feminine of مكتب maktab, “office.” From the root كتب kataba meaning “to write,” whence we also get كتاب kitaab “book,” كاتب kaatib “author,” كتابة kitaaba “writing”….

    Hehe. Arabic has a truly amazing system for deriving words, and it’s easy to get lost in it. But the reason I bring this up is because Arabic, unlike most of the languages named above, doesn’t use a loanword for “library”; it has a native word derived from a Semitic root. Arabs are conservative about their written language, and protectionist. So there are few modern loanwords which find currency in written Arabic, and when they do they’re often replaced with a suitably Arab alternative.

    Now most languages freely accept loanwords from dominant languages like English. Is this a good or bad thing? Depends on your perspective. Just musing.

  9. The Hebrew is sifriya, which I think may be fairly modern, beit sefer, lit. House of Book being a school.
    Both from sefer, book, which in turn is related to siper(tell) and sfirah (counting) -cf English to tell, and account, meaning either reckoning or story.
    Kotev, write, similar to Arabic, gives mikhtav, a letter.

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