Why is textbook not just book?

While I suppose it could contrast with a picture book, a book for academic purposes containing nothing but pictures would still be called a textbook. It doesn't appear that textbook is connected to the format of the content in a book, only to the purpose of the book. Sometimes text alone is used to refer to these books, but in that vein textbook is redundant (unless there is/was some type of non-book text).

The meat of this question is, when the term textbook was coined, at the time were there other types of books that text was meant to differentiate textbooks from? Was there some historical purpose for the redundancy? How did textbook come to be?

  • The text for my sermon is: 2 Tim 3:16 (Not that comments are God-breathed, but they might be useful...)
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 22, 2015 at 21:04
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    @AndrewLeach Hmm. "Text" seems to make sense in that context, though, since you're talking about where the actual text is. Still, even given a definition of "text", "textbook" seems redundant. You wouldn't say "the texttext for my sermon..." for example. Given the linked definitions, "textbook" to me, in a way, feels like "ATM machine". (Note, though, that I'm not questioning the redundancy itself, I'm more wondering if the redundancy was originally a necessity when the term was coined.)
    – Jason C
    Dec 22, 2015 at 21:12
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    @Jason: Per your link in that comment, a text can be specifically a book or other piece of writing; especially : one that is studied. So unless you're reading it in the context of literary studies, a novel wouldn't normally be called a textbook. I think it's quite intuitive that when you further qualify a book as being a textbook, you're intending to convey that it's a book containing text which is studied (rather than simply read for entertainment, etc.). Dec 22, 2015 at 21:16
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    The word text was in use centuries before textbook with OED's definition A copy of the Scriptures, or of a book of the Scriptures; spec. a volume containing the Gospels. Perhaps the later usage gained traction when people realised there were other texts worth studying besides Scripture. Dec 22, 2015 at 21:25
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    @Jason: I'm not working towards any claim. There's not necessarily any definitive and clear-cut reason why we usually call it a textbook rather than, say, studybook. But I'd say it's obvious that at some point several centuries ago, increasing literacy (and an increasing number of different types of books) would lead us to seek some way of making finer distinctions. Dec 22, 2015 at 21:33

3 Answers 3


According to the OED, textbook derives from an obsolete sense of text, that is, text-hand:

1730 N. Bailey Dict. Britannicum (folio), Text-Book (in Universities) is a Classick Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines.

In other words, a text-book is a book written in a widely space format, i.e. in text-hand:

A fine large hand in writing.
a. orig. One of the larger and more formal hands in which the text of a book was often written, as distinct from the smaller or more cursive hand appropriate to the gloss, etc.

R. Holme Acad. Armory iii. 414/2 These are the form of the Letters..used by the Germans; and are termed the Text Hand Letters.

b. Now usually applied to a school-hand written in lines about half an inch wide.

Text-hand, in other words, refers to the hand (script) use to represent the text— words and sentences in the original form and order, as distinguished from a commentary, marginal or other, or from annotations. Hence, in later use, the body of any treatise, the authoritative or formal part as distinguished from notes, appendices, introduction, and other explanatory or supplementary matter. Its size and spacing allows commentary to be written in between the lines.

The origin of text is Latin via French, and as the commenters note, used originally of Scripture and the like.

From the same origin comes text-writer, i.e. a professional writer of text-hand, before the introduction of printing; later, an engrosser of legal documents, from which derives the modern meaning of the author of a legal textbook.

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    Now this is a decent answer! And thanks for vindicating my decision to only post a comment heading in this general direction. :) Dec 22, 2015 at 21:35
  • Awesome, and some fine digging there.
    – Jason C
    Dec 22, 2015 at 21:44

Thanks are due to choster for their inspiring answer. I think we can paint a more complete picture with two more sources. Friedrich Kittler writes (in Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Stanford University Press, 1992, p.155) that

At the time of Republic or Scholars a lecture meant paraphrasing a standard text possessed by the professor and his students. “Even in the early eighteenth century a ‘textbook’ was still defined as a ‘Classick Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c., to be inserted in the Interlines’ (O.E.D.).”

And according to Nick Groom (in The Making of Percy's Reliques, Clarendon Press, 1999, p.69),

In a 1765 dictionary, ‘Classick’ was derived from Johnson: a ‘classick author’ being ‘one that is placed in the first rank of credit among scholars’.

So, in those days, a university lecture meant the professor paraphrasing passages of text authored by some first-rate, well respected authors, and the students jotting down the text, while leaving wide margins between lines (and possibly between words as well) so that the professor's annotations or interpretations of the passages can be inserted.

In short, a ‘textbook’ is a book for jotting down text, rather than a printed book of standard text. Also, as FumbleFingers has pointed out, ‘textbooks’ in the old times are written by students, albeit authored by the others.


Just a guess:

It's used in a classroom setting. Long ago there were no textbooks; there were at most notebooks (e.g. written by students). When textbooks came along the teacher used "textbook" to make the distinction.

Another difference between notebooks and textbooks is that the former are (were) handwritten and the latter are printed. Printed "text" versus handwritten script.

Again, just a guess.

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    Nah. OED's earliest definition has the 1730 citation Text-Book (in Universities) is a Classick Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines. Dec 22, 2015 at 21:19

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