What is a Tome?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

In modern usage, the word tome refers to a large scholarly book, or a single volume of a scholarly work. Usually the word is associated with a particularly large or heavy book, such as a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary or a substantial textbook. Many academic libraries possess a number of weighty examples of tomes. This usage of the word has been documented since 1573. Tome is sometimes used incorrectly to refer to large fiction books.

The Oxford English Dictionary is often considered a tome due to it's large size.
The Oxford English Dictionary is often considered a tome due to it's large size.

The word tome originally appeared in the early 1500s to refer to a section or volume of a book. At that time, many books were produced in multiple parts because they tended to be large, heavy, and expensive to make. By purchasing books one volume at a time, collectors could spread the cost out rather than making a bulk expenditure. The word originates from the Latin term “tomus,” which was used to refer to a single volume of a book.

The word tome refers to a large scholarly book, or a single volume of a scholarly work.
The word tome refers to a large scholarly book, or a single volume of a scholarly work.

Tomus itself originates from the Greek “tomos,” which means a section or piece cut off. Originally, tomes were released with the intent of being rebound by the owner once he or she had collected all of the volumes in a set. People who specialize in antiquarian books are sometimes frustrated by this, as changes in paper quality and binding from tome to tome could result in damage to other volumes of the book.

Academic books are still released in multiple volumes for much the same reason that they were broken up in the 1500s: they tend to be expensive and difficult to produce. In addition, it can take several decades to complete a scholarly work, so academics will release sections of the book as they are completed to pique interest. This is commonly seen with complex research books such as the Kinsey Report, which was released in multiple volumes between 1948 and 1953.

Tome is also used in a respectful and reverent way, to indicate amazement and awe at the size of a book and its presumably substantial contents. Many academics, especially historians, aspire to produce a tome or two during their lifetime, especially if they intend to retain tenure at a major university. Generally a tome is not considered portable, and would be kept in a library or reading room to be used for reference. People who own substantial tomes are also usually reluctant to lend them out due to their academic value, expense, and size.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@zeak4hands - That's a pretty cool way to look at your grandmother's cookbook! My favorite kind of tome is something similar -- my grandmother's old, well-worn dictionary and thesaurus. The definitions aren't technically considered up to date anymore, but that's part of the fascination for me, as it has been since I was a little kid.

When I was little, grandmother would leave the book on her coffee table and let me page through it. Even though I was pretty young, she wasn't worried I would ruin the tome, and I was always super careful with it because I loved it. I have fond childhood memories of looking through the worn out pages and sounding out the words. Some of the words in grandmother's tome are among the first ones I learned to read and spell.

Tomes, especially old ones, are wonderful pieces of history in the form of collected knowledge. I don't think they can ever get out of date -- now grandmother's tome makes a great reference for how the vocabulary and word meanings were thought of back when it was printed.


As a long time Dungeons and Dragons player, tome is a common part of my vocabulary and has been for years. Even though tome is used in modern terms for really big books, fantasy and medieval works typically use the word tome to refer to spell books that teach new skills. So really, the term hasn't changed very much over the last 450+ years.

The only real tome that I see in modern time is the Webster dictionary books -- which consist of lots of tomes that make up the series for learning.


Personally, when I hear the word tome -- I think of my great grandmother's cookbook. It is a two part book -- but the page numbers and contents are in two separate books, linking back to each other. It is a marvelous keepsake to have and is my family's tome. We all love cooking and the recipes are as delicious now as they were back then.


I have a few coffee table art books and I consider them to be tomes. I know these types of book aren't generally thought of when one mentions a tome but I think it fits because they contain a lot of reference material and I never take them out of the house.

My favorite one is a large catalog of Impressionist art. The book contains entries for most of the famous Impressionist artist which includes their biography, information about their work and of course pictures. There is also a long explanation of Impressionism at the front of the book. If this isn't a tome I don't know what is!


I love this word! When I took Anatomy and Physiology I spent the whole semester referring to my textbook as the "tome of doom." I think that textbook may be the largest and heaviest textbook I've ever owned in my life!

I know tome is usually used in a more respectful fashion but I think in the case of the A&P textbook the nickname fit.

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