Life’s a Beechnut

Lesson thirteen brought such useful vocabulary as le verger (orchard), the difficult for me to pronounce yet slightly more likely to come up in conversation l’écureuil (squirrel), and the very unlikely term la faine (beechnut).

There were many sentences to write about squirrels gathering beechnuts in the autumn in this lesson, which was actually about quantity. Do they gather two beechnuts? Some beechnuts? A lot of beechnuts? (Ils rammasent deux faines, rammasent de faines, ou ramassent beaucoup de faines.)

Beechnut image by Magnus Hagdorn
no changes to the image have been made
Creative Commons

But it made me wonder about beechnuts. I remember eating them as a kid. Friends of my grandparents had a cabin in the middle of nowhere; if I were forced to find it today, I would be absolutely unable to do so. There was a dirt road that meandered along in front of the cabin under a canopy of Northeastern American forest. Part of that canopy was beech trees, and they dropped beechnuts. My grandmother would encourage my brother and me to gather the beechnuts like squirrels (rammasez les faines comme écureuils). She didn’t give a shit about beechnuts; she did give a shit about walking with her friends along a quiet dirt road and talking with them without being interrupted by my brother and I. We would open their burred casings, if they still had them, then crack open their little tripod shells to get at the meat. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I liked opening the nuts, and I liked eating them. According to a forum run by the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden people, beechnuts are “safe, if not all that palatable.” They’re probably right.

Beech Reading

So the French squirrels and I must have beechnuts in common, non? No. Beech trees don’t really grow in France. They grow farther north in Europe and kind of mark the line between deciduous forests and evergreen forests. They’re found in places like Norway, not Normandy.

But the book I’m using, Shorter French Course, was written by professors at the University of Toronto. Since beech trees grow east of the Great Plains and mostly in the north in North America too, it made a bit more sense. I don’t know why anyone would need to talk about beech trees all that much, even in Toronto, but so be it.

Lo and behold, the word beech comes from old northern European languages. Makes sense the people who had the tree would also have a name for the tree. But here is where the humble beech gets to humble brag: it also gave us the word book.

Beech Books

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Grimms – yes, those Grimms, of fairy tale fame – postulated that the Old Norse word bok meant both beech tree and book. That’s because this population used wooden tablets to write on. So the word for the thing they wrote on because the word for the thing itself.

It’s happened before. The Latin word codex meant “tree trunk.” Then wood was used to make tablets for writing, and then a tablet was also called a codex. Then those tablets were collected together to create a written work, which was called a codex.

Still, the Grimms’ idea fell out of linguistic favor in the middle of the twentieth century. As people dove deep into these early languages with modern analytic tools, they found inconsistencies in the noun classes and the etymology. But in recent years, linguists have mostly come back around to Grimm’s original idea that the word for beech was the word for book because beechwood tablets became books.

Just to hit this nail with this hammer one more time, the Oxford English Dictionary also notes that the Sanskrit word for birch, bhurja, in the masculine means “birch tree” and in the feminine means “birch bark used for writing.” The Grimms were no joke.

I had to look up the word for beech in French. It obviously has a different etymology than the Germanic languages, because it’s hetre. For the record, the modern French word for book is livre, which comes pretty directly from the Latin liber.

100% That Beech

I’ve wandered pretty far from squirrels and beechnuts. But since I had to write:

Qu’est-ce que les écureuils ramassent en automne?

Ils ramassent beaucoup de faines.

I figured I might as well reward myself with a trip down the research rabbit hole. If you love research, here are some entry points, some of which are paid sites I use all the time:

The Book and the Beech Tree Revisited: The Life Cycle of a Germanic Etymology

Marc PierceHistorische Sprachforschung / Historical Linguistics Bd. 119 (2006), pp. 273-282 Published by: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG)

University of British Columbia Botanical Gardens Forum

OED entry for book: