Do the English have an ancient (obsolete) verb for the action of the book opening?

For example, in Russian we say otkrit' (open the book), but in the Old slavonic the verb razognuti (to unbend the book) was used.

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    I guess you'd know better than me, since I don't know Russian at all, but this web page seems to be saying that Russian открыть just corresponds to English open. The specific implication of to open a book seems to be just a matter of context, not inherent to the verb itself. I seriously doubt English has a dedicated term for opening books as opposed to things like cans of beans or doors. Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 13:30
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    "Crack" is occasionally used in this sense.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 13:34
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    @HotLicks: Eh? Can you give an example utterance where to crack means to open a book, without the actual object being explicitly specified? Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 13:35
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    @FumbleFingers - That doesn't mean that you've ever opened the book. You inherited it from your grandmother and haven't touched it since.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 13:41
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    is seeking an obsolete English word not off topic?
    – lbf
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 15:08

4 Answers 4


This is a very interesting question. There may not be an old word in English that does what you describe, but it is important to note that the English word "open" relative to a book meant something different in earlier times.

To open a book now usually means to part or spread the cover and the pages into a position so you can read the pages contained in the book.

However, books used to be made by folding sheets of paper larger than the page size and they would be sold without trimming the edges, so when you got your new book, it would be "unopened" meaning that you couldn't turn the pages. You had to "open" the book with a dull knife (like a letter opener) by ripping along the folds. (This is why some books have ragged edges of the text block, to evoke the memory of those ripped page edges.)

The OED has

e. transitive. To cut open the leaves of (a book) when they have been left joined along an edge during the making; to cut open (the leaves) of such a book.

You will find old books described (by knowledgable book dealers) as "unopened". This correctly means that the folded sheets are un-ripped; it doesn't mean that no-one has ever spread the covers and looked inside.

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    If you want to avoid the ambiguity of unopened, you can call a book whose sheets have not been trimmed intonso instead, which is unambiguous. Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 23:16
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Unambiguous? All I can find from a search of "intonso" are Italian translations.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 2:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet This is the first reference to book I found in my searches "si dice di libro con le pagine non ancora tagliate, come un tempo erano i libri nuovi; nuovo, intatto", obviously meaning in Italian what you just said.
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 2:54
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    books are still made from sheets larger than a page, I;ve encountered some with defects leading to two pages being joined by a paper bridge.
    – Jasen
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 2:57
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    @Janus Bahs Jacquet: "Uncut" is the more common term for books with uncut pages. Indeed, I had never seen "unopened" used in this context before.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 4:21

Until 1960, possibly later, Gallimard sold books unbound and uncut. 'Uncut' meant that the pages were still in their signatures with the outer edge of most pages presenting a folded edge. Before you read the book you had to 'cut the pages.' This was also the case in England 1820: even bound volumes had to have their pages cut.

There's an obscure joke, possibly Samuel Johnson, where a nouveau riche says "These books, they are my friends." To which the other replies, "I see you don't cut your friends." (Cutting your friend is to ignore them deliberately) Sorry, that's absurdly complicated. But 'Cut the pages,' or simply 'to cut,' is certainly an outdated word for opening a book.

The Shorter Oxford under 'paper' has -knife

[paper]-knife, a knife of ivory, wood, etc., used esp. to cut open the leaves of an uncut book.

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    @D Mac It is always a mixed pleasure to find someone agrees with you but has posted an answer while you were chasing a reference.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 17:42
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    Yeah, but you don't get points for being first. :-) By the way, are you referring to Gallimard the French book publisher?
    – D Mac
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 17:56
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    In book parlance, "uncut" is different from "unopened". You can cut open a book, but cutting is more strictly used to mean trim (usually in a guillotine). It leaves a smooth edge on the text block and make it unnecessary to "open" the book as a result. There's a joke about "keeping the deckles", but I bet you know that one. :-)
    – D Mac
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 18:01
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    Fascicle isn’t the word you’re looking for here: a fascicle is a separately bound and published part of a larger work, usually intended to be rebound together with (or otherwise combined with) the remaining fascicles of the same work. What you’re talking about here is simply a sheet. Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 23:13

The Middle English verb undon was often applied to opening a book (and many other objects).

c1300 SLeg.Fran.(1) (LdMisc 108)159 : He on-dude þe bok and þe furste þat he cam to Þat was a godspel. (He undid the book and the first that he came to - that was a gospel.)

a1325 SLeg.(Corp-C 145)354/166 : He…wende him sulf forþ is wei & þe oþer vndude þe bok. (He walked himself forth his way and the other undid the book.)

c1475 Mankind (Folg V.a.354)797 : All þe bokys in þe worlde, yf þei hade be wndon, Kowde not a cownselde ws bett. (All the books in the world, if they had been undone, could not have counseled us better.)

This meaning has since disappeared along with the book clasps that would have once been common on books. (To see a few examples of bindings, see "Medieval bindings" on the British Library site.)

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    +1. This is simply the older conjugation of undo, of course, and today we would undo the clasps of a book or the wrapping, rather than the book itself.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 2:37
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    Kudos for finding citations that use the word in this exact sense.
    – Davislor
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 3:00
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    Interestingly, the German standard word for opening a book is aufschlagen (literally, "to beat open") and it originates from forcefully opening such clasps (though todays speakers are unaware of that) Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 13:28

One obsolete Middle English word for “open” is unschette (the opposite of modern shut), and a word that’s changed meaning and once meant opened is unlokynne (modern unlocked).

An old-fashioned word for reading a book that modern readers would still understand might be leaf through it.