10 Fun and Fascinating Rare Books Terms I Learned This Semester

This past fall semester, I took a Rare Books and Special Collections course that introduced me to a whole new vocabulary of interesting—and often funny—terms that librarians and booksellers use to describe books. Here is a list of my new ten favorite words from my class notes, which range from useful descriptions of book formats to fun facts that may just be amusing to share with other book lovers. 

Rare book terminology is not only essential to know for special collections librarians, catalogers, or serious collections, but may also be relevant to help you describe books in your own personal collection. I had encountered books with some of these formats and features before, but didn’t know there might have been a word to describe it before. Now, I’m grateful to have more of this terminology under my belt, and I encourage you to broaden your book-related vocabulary too! Many of these terms and definitions can be found in my professor, Sidney Berger’s book, The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary for Book Collectors.

This 1764 The New-England Primer, the first reading primer in the American colonies, from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is an example of an abecedarium. Source: Wikimedia.

Abecedarium (or alphabet books): These inscriptions or books comprise of the letters of the alphabet, typically created to help people learn the alphabet.

Acephalous book: Acephalus means headless, so an acephalus book refers to a book that’s missing its title page and potentially other frontmatter. 

Babewynes: These creatures appear in the margins of medieval manuscripts, which often combine the parts of various animal species.

Bowdlerized: Named for Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), bowdlerizing is when text is censored, altered, or omitted because its considered offensive. Bowdler was the editor of The Family Shakespeare from 1815-1818 who practiced this frequently with the goal to make Shakespeare family-friendly.

Cockled: When books get wet from water or high humidity and the paper begins to warp or get wavy/wrinkly, that’s known as cockling.

Fleurons (or printer’s flowers, or dingbats): Decorative flourishes that are used as embellishment on a page or book’s binding. You might often see these in section or chapter breaks, and now you have a word to describe them!

An example of a 1880s poem with decorative dingbats. Source: Wikimedia.

Leporello (or orihan): A book bound with an accordion-style binding that has front and back boards.

Orphans and widows: Lines of text at the beginning of a paragraph that are formatted as a single line at the bottom of a page are known as orphans. Conversely, the last line of a paragraph formatted as a single line at the top of a page is known as a widow. Printers typically correct for these stray lines, and Microsoft Word even has a feature called Widow/Orphan control under Paragraph format settings.

Tête-bêche: The French word for “head to tail,” this fun format combines two books into one volume, one printed in the front and the other printed upside down in the text block, allowing you to flip the volume over to read the next book. While I had encountered these books before, I didn’t know the terminology to describe them properly!

Salesman’s dummy (or sample book): These books are printed by publishers to show an example of what the final version of a book may look like to market to potential buyers. However, they’re typically only a small selection of the text with summary information as well as lined pages in the back for the salesman to fill out with order information of buyers.


Berger, Sidney. The Dictionary of the Book: A Glossary for Book Collectors. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. 
Merriam-Webster.com. 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/

Paige Szmodis is an online, second-year MLIS student at Simmons University in the Cultural Heritage Informatics concentration. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Featured image by Stock Catalog on Flickr.

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