12 Obscure Words Every Book Lover Should Know

Posted on 25th October 2017 by Martha Greengrass

We all know that behind all good stories are a wealth of words, but what about the stories behind the words themselves? A joy for all logophiles, The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities presents a fascinating selection of the unusual and forgotten words that lurk in the corners of our language. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, author Paul Anthony Jones presents a selection of choice linguistic gems, perfect for bibliophiles.

A booklover is a bibliophile of course, and the page-turning bibliophile’s excessive admiration of books is properly known as bibliophily. But elsewhere in the less well-thumbed corners of the dictionary lie a host of equally book-obsessed words, which any self-respecting bibliophile will doubtless find useful—a dozen of which are listed here… 


Coined in the late 19th century, the word biblioklept shares a common ancestor with kleptomania and literally means a “book thief”. Or, put another way, it’s that friend you lend your books to who conveniently never gets round to returning them. 


…And if you’re sick of your books going missing or unreturned, try becoming a bibliotaph: someone who hoards or hides their books, or metaphorically “buries” them under lock and key. 


Derived from Latin roots meaning “all” and “reading”, if you’re omnilegent then you’re either extremely well read and have a knowledge of a great amount of literature, or are absolutely addicted to reading everything that comes your way. 


Stall-literature was Thomas Carlyle’s word for the low-quality literature found at 19th century marketplace bookstalls. Along similar lines, the English poet Richard Leigh coined the word stall-learning as far back as the late 1600s to refer to the superficial knowledge of a subject that is picked up by flicking idly through a book—which is also known as index-learning. 


The writer HL Mencken coined this word in 1957, writing, “There are people who read too much: bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion.” Appropriately enough, he coined the word from a mishmash of the Greek word for “book”, and the Latin word for “drink”. 


If déjà-vu is the unusual feeling that something has already come to pass, then déjà-lu is its literary cousin. Derived from the French verb lire, it refers to the discomforting feeling that you’re reading something that you’ve already read. 


…And if you have actually resorted to reading things you’ve already read, then you’re perhaps on your way to developing abibliophobia: the fear of running out of things to read!


Reading or studying by candlelight—or put another way, reading by artificial light after dark—is called elucubration. Someone who does precisely that is an elucubrator or, as Shakespeare preferred, a candle-waster. 


Leave it to Latin to find the perfect term for you: a helluo liborum is someone with an insatiable appetite for books. Brilliantly, it literally means “book-glutton”. 


Alphabetical order. Genre by genre. Dewey Decimal. No matter how you choose to do it, the adjective bibliothetic refers to the arrangement of books in a library or on a bookshelf. It’s derived from a Greek word meaning “placement” or “arrangement”—which makes it a distant relative of the word thesis. 


Dating from as far back as the 14th century, a lectory is literally a “reading place”: somewhere where you and your books can be left alone in peace. 


We’re bending the rules slightly with this last one, by adopting a word from Japanese—but for good reason, as there really isn’t a direct English translation of tsundoku. It refers to the obsessive practice of buying books but leaving them unread in piles around your house. Surely a situation no one here can identify with… 


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