Although trees seem to have taken over my blogging life lately, I also sometimes ponder the meaning and origins of words. Bear with me as I invite you to consider the differences between a leaflet, a booklet, a pamphlet and a brochure.
I have often thought about this (I must be a very sad person), but it became topical recently with the UK Government’s decision to spend £9m of taxpayers’ money on a slim publication to be sent to all homes to give just the one side of the European Referendum debate, in favour of Britain staying in the European Union.
The referendum is on June 23 and it is supposed to be a free vote. I don’t aim to get political here and I am still one of the undecided, but I did notice that the words leaflet, booklet, pamphlet and brochure were all used by various news reporters to describe the publication.
Although in real life the terms are often treated as interchangeable, I like to get things straight in my mind – and I find the origins of the words pamphlet and brochure particularly interesting…
The word leaf, meaning the usually flat and thin organ on a plant, came to us through the Old English word lēaf but beyond that from something similar in an Indo-European ancestral language. We have come to call a page of paper a leaf because it is also thin and flat.
The suffix -let means “little”, so a leaflet is a little leaf, in both senses of the word – a small part of a compound leaf on a plant, or a flimsy piece of paper, often folded.
To my mind a paper leaflet is small, thin, sometimes folded and never (in my opinion) stapled. There are several basic folding patterns:
Here are a couple from my own collection…
But whether folded or unfolded in design, to me a leaflet is never stapled. That would make it a booklet.
The work book comes from the Old English bōc, originally also meaning a “document” or “charter”. It probably also relates further back to bece, meaning “beech tree”, from an ancestral Indo-European word bhagos, which relates to the Greek phegos, meaning “oak” and Latin fagus “beech” (perhaps because runes were carved on the wood).
As before, the suffix -let means “little”, so a booklet is a little book.
In my opinion a booklet is always stapled or “perfect bound”. If it grows to have the dimensions of a paperback it becomes a book unless it is extremely skinny, in which case I might accept it’s still a booklet.
A pamphlet is a small booklet with no cover. It’s cheap to produce so it has been used for centuries to widely disseminate information, political or religious views. Although pamphlets have become a vehicle for campaigning, the first apparently contained a comic love poem, Pamphilus, seu de Amore (“Pamphilus, or Concerning Love”), so popular it was widely copied as a slim little booklet.
Pamphilus’s name is from the Greek, meaning “beloved of all” and around 1387 the general name for such little booklets became pamphilet or panflet.
The modern meaning of a pamphlet as a controversial tract comes from around 1642 in the heated arguments leading to the English Civil War. In French a pamphlet is a libelle, from the Latin libellus, meaning a “little book” and we seem to get our word libel (meaning written defamation) from the same place.
The word brochure is French, meaning “a stitched work,” from brocher “to stitch” (sheets together), from the Old French brochier, meaning “to prick, jab, pierce,” from broche, a “pointed tool or awl”. So it is definitely stitched or stapled, to my mind.
While a pamphlet is usually controversial, a brochure is usually larger in format, glossy and very commercial, trying to sell you something, such as a holiday or a new fitted kitchen.
So what does that make the Government leaflet on the European Referendum vote? A brochure because it is trying to sell you an idea? Or a pamphlet because it’s controversial?