AskDefine | Define hornbook

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A single page containing the alphabet, covered with a sheet of transparent horn, formerly used for teaching children to read.
    • 1696, William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost
      Moth: Yes, yes. He teaches boys the hornbook.
    • a. 1828, Samuel Johnson, John Walker, Robert S. Jameson, A Dictionary of the English Language, page 351,
      HORNBOOK, (horn'-book) n. The first book of children, covered with horn to keep it unsoiled.
    • 1913, Katharine Lee Bates, Lilla Weed, Shakespeare: Selective Bibliography and Biographical Notes, page 41
      By way of the hornbook Shakespeare would have learned to read, [….]
    • 1999, Nigel Wheale, Writing and Society: Literacy, Print, and Politics in Britain, 1590-1660, page 43
      Infants learned their letters from a hornbook, a square of wood shaped like a table-tennis bat on which were pasted the alphabet, syllables and the Lord's Prayer […].
    • 2002, Nila Banton Smith, American Reading Instruction, page 14
      The hornbook is the first piece of instructional material specifically mentioned in American records.
  2. A legal textbook that gives a basic overview of a particular area of law.


Extensive Definition

A hornbook is a book that serves as primer for study. The hornbook originated in England in 1450 (Huey, Edmund Burke). The term has been applied to a few different study materials in different fields. In children's education, in the years before modern education materials were used, it referred to a leaf or page containing the alphabet, religious materials, etc., covered with a sheet of transparent horn and fixed in a frame with a handle. In United States Law, a hornbook is a text that gives an overview of a particular area of law.

Use in Early Childhood Education

In early childhood education, a hornbook was a primer for children consisting of a sheet containing the letters of the alphabet, mounted on wood, bone, or leather and protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn or mica. Sometimes the sheet was simply pasted against the slice of horn. The wooden frame often had a handle, and it was usually hung at the child's girdle. The sheet, which in ancient times was of vellum and later of paper, contained first a large cross, from which the horn-book was called the Christ Cross Row, or criss-cross-row. The alphabet in large and small letters followed. The vowels then formed a line, and their combinations with the consonants were given in a tabular form. The usual Trinitarian formula - "in the name of the Father and of the Sonne and of the Holy Ghost, Amen" - followed, then the Lord's Prayer, the whole concluding with the Roman numerals. The hornbook is mentioned in William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, act 5, scene 1, where the ba, the a, e, i, o, u, and the horn, are alluded to by Moth:
ARMADO. [To HOLOFERNES] Monsieur, are you not lett'red?
MOTH. Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?
HOLOFERNES. Ba, pueritia, with a horn added.
MOTH. Ba, most silly sheep with a horn. You hear his learning.
HOLOFERNES. Quis, quis, thou consonant?
MOTH. The third of the five vowels, if You repeat them; or the fifth, if I.
HOLOFERNES. I will repeat them: a, e, I-
MOTH. The sheep; the other two concludes it: o, U.
It is also described by Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, act 4, scene 2:
CORVINO: ... And yet I hope that I may say, these eyesHave seen her glued unto that piece of cedar,That fine well-timber'd gallant; and that hereThe letters may be read, through the horn,That make the story perfect.


Huey, E. B. (1908). commons Hornbook
hornbook in German: Buchstabentafel

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

abecedarium, abecedary, alphabet, alphabet book, and arithmetic, basics, battledore, casebook, elementary education, elements, exercise book, first principles, first steps, gradus, grammar, induction, initiation, introduction, manual, manual of instruction, outlines, primer, principia, principles, propaedeutic, reader, reading, rudiments, schoolbook, speller, spelling book, t, text, workbook, writing
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