“You’ve injured your tailbone, the coccyx,” the doctor said after examining me, “and the muscle is sore.” As soon as I got home, I looked up “coccyx” in one of my etymological dictionaries.

The coccyx, I read, is the small triangular bone at the base of the spinal column that resembles a cuckoo’s bill. It came via Latin from the Greek word for cuckoo, kokkux. I wondered about “muscle.” An ordinary sounding word with no ring to it, had to have an unremarkable history, I thought to myself as I turned the pages of The Oxford Essential Dictionary of World Histories.

I was happy to be proved wrong, as “muscle” goes back through French to the Latin musculus, or little mouse. Ancient Romans thought their muscles wriggled like mice.

Enough diversions, it was high time to put pen or pencil to paper and work on my book. I sipped a cup of Darjeeling tea, and placed my coccyx on an ice pack. I twirled a sharpened pencil in my hand. My protagonist was a little stuck; in other words, I was a little stuck.

I wouldn’t be wasting my time if I made a list of words connected with books and reading and writing and looked them up. I wouldn’t even have to disturb my coccyx; my word dictionaries were lying in a stack next to me.

Runes were first made on beech tablets or cut in the bark of beech trees. It’s easy to see how “book” evolved from “beech.” The “pencil,” my preferred writing instrument, comes from Latin, via Old French “pincel”, denoting a fine paintbrush, or “little tail.”

Our stylish “pens” were once little more than “feathers with sharpened quills.”

The old French “penne” is the source of the word, ultimately from the Latin penna meaning feather. And yes, your favourite pasta dish, penne arrabbiata, just means angry (fiery!) quill-shaped pasta!

The Greek word for paper originally referred to writing sheets made from the pith and stem of the papyrus, a plant native to Egypt. “Write” first meant to scratch, and scratch the ancients did on birch-bark with sharp stones and other pointed instruments.

“Letter”, as in the letters of the alphabet, is akin to the Latin word “linere”, “to smear”, which is rather strange, because, to give the ancients their due, most writing was painstakingly formed. From “letter” we get “literal” (letter by letter), while a “literary” person is a man (or woman) of letters.

When you “obliterate” something, you wipe out all the letters. And while still on the subject of letters, it is noteworthy that the German word for “letter” is Buchstabe, which literally means ‘beech staff.’ The first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (α) and beta (β), were joined together to form “alphabet.”

Some 3,000 years ago in ancient Phoenicia, the letter ‘A’ was named “aleph” and meant “ox”.

It was represented in the form of a “V,” depicting the horns of an ox, and had a slanted bar across it. But the Greeks later turned it upside down, which is the way we know it. The ox served the Phoenicians for food and work and shoes and clothing. A herd of cattle meant wealth. It is no wonder then, that the ox, aleph or A became the first letter of the alphabet.

The Greek root “id-“ (to see) gives us “idea.” It is true, then, that “seeing” is “believing.” From “idea” we have ‘idealist.’ An idealist can be a visionary, which takes us right back to the idea of “seeing.”

Before the days of the typewriter and the computer, a “manuscript” was written by hand. That is stating the obvious, because “manus” is Latin for hand. In the earliest manuscripts, the texts ran without breaks between paragraphs or even words. To help readers make sense of it, the Greeks placed a short horizontal mark below every line which began a new subject. This is how we got our word “paragraph”, from “para” – “by the side of” – and “graphos”, which means “written.”

“Text” relates to “texture” and “textile” and traces back to “texo” – “to weave”, referring to the way words and sentences are “woven” together. We speak of “weaving” a tale or “spinning a yarn.” A “subtle” idea is a “finely spun” one.

An author was originally one who invented something or made something grow. When the author’s manuscript is “rejected”, it is literally “thrown back” at her. If the writer is guilty of “plagiarism,” she has “kidnapped” someone else’s ideas and writings. When one “discusses” a book, one “shakes it to pieces”.