June 2010

The conventions of music and formats of music reproduction have lived hand in hand since the wax cylinder. These first systems of reproduction could produce recording in first two minute cylinders and then four. Like almost every commercial technology, from the VHS/BetaMax wars to the Blue Ray/HD DVD battles, a combination of technical superiority and business luck would decide the winning format.

Early on, dozens of phonograph formats competed with a dizzy array of sizes, core materials, speeds. But music both drove the formats and was limited by them. If the first formats where restricted to two minutes, the type of music that could be recorded was also restricted. Pop songs could be expressly written for the two minute format, but an aria or a longer classical piece would need to be excerpted in some way.

Most innovations in the first half of the last century resulted in refinements to recordings of the standard three minute pop “single”. The 7″ 78 rpm disc was replaced by the 7″ 45 rpm disc, both of which contain roughly the same amount of music, but with higher fidelity in the newer 45 record. This format also suited radio stations, who preferred shorter songs that would allow for more frequent commercial messages. This concept of the “single”, has carried into this century as the digital download, and remains the most popular recording format.

The desire for a format that would hold more than “Jeepers Creepers” showed up first in the 12″ 78 rpm disc for classical music or operatic selections, with up to four to five minutes of music per side. These larger discs would sometimes be packaged in cardboard record “albums” that might contain multiple discs, for example, the “Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky was bundled on 4 double-sided discs in an album sleeve.

The 1950’s brought the “long playing” “micro-grove” 33 RPM 12 disc. This format was slow to be adopted, despite the higher fidelity and the potential of 45 minutes of content. It was initially popular for broadway musicals and classical music, but was slowly adopted for popular music, again creating a creative format as defined by the prevailing technology. While Keith Richards said, perhaps apocryphally, that an album was “A hit and ten tracks of crap,” it has also been a format that has allowed artist to expand beyond the boundaries of the single and link materially thematically.

The length of the digital CD extended the length significantly with content of up to 80 minutes. According the the Philips corporate website, the “Sony vice-president Norio Ōga suggested extending the capacity to 74 minutes to accommodate Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine from the 1951 Bayreuth Festiva” when working with Philips on the CD design, stating definitively, “Let us take the music as the basis”.

Today, with the CD fading into the technology sunset, we return to the 1880’s where, like the phonograph cylinder, the single song download from iTunes is the predominate form. When the iTunes store opened, it sold a million tracks in it’s first five days. To date, it has sold over 10 billion songs, with Louie Sulcer of Woodstock, Georgia downloading the 10 billionth with “Guess Things Happen That Way” by Johnny Cash.

It’s all a matter of how you want to spend your 99 cents. You can buy the shortest song on record: “You Suffer” by the band Napalm Death, from their debut album, “Scum”. The song has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest recorded song ever clocking in at precisely 1.316 seconds.


“You Suffer” live!

In a recent viabrevis posting (“Carved in Stone, Cast in Concrete”), we looked at messages written in (or on) stone but neglected to say what such messages are called, not so much for lack of a word as the difficulty of choosing among the various possibilities. For example, how should we refer to the rock writing in the following illustration?
Spiritual Power petroglyph

“SPIRITUAL POWER” could be called either a petroglyph or a petrograph, and the painted graffito could be called either a pictograph or pictogram. *Pictoglyph and *petrogram seem to be nonstarters, though the fuzzy semantic boundaries among the suffixes
–glyph, -graph, and –gram make them plausible runners-up.

-glyph comes from Greek γλυφή ‘a carving’ from the verb γλύφειν ‘to carve, cut out.’ (It was by scratching desert varnish from rock faces that the Anasazi and other Native Americans created the New World’s earliest petroglyphs. The 20th-century stone mason who gave us “SPIRITUAL POWER” used a similar technique.) By extension, glyph came to designate specifically ‘a written (esp. carved) symbol or ornament’ (as in hieroglyphics, sometimes now used facetiously to refer to indecipherable writing) and, more recently, simply ‘an informational symbol’ (as in the somewhat arcane autoglyph—a multidimensional pixel—or the more mundane picture identifying a men’s room):
Men's room glyph

-graph comes from Greek γραφή ‘something written’ (as in autograph ‘something written by oneself’ [αὐτός ‘(one)self’] or biography [βίοσ ‘life’] ‘a written account of a life’) whose meaning has been extended to ‘something that writes or describes’ (as in phonograph ‘device for recording and reproducing sound [φωνή ‘sound’]), from the verb γράφειν ‘to scrape, scratch’ (cognate with the –grave of engrave) and, by extension, ‘to write.’ As a specific kind of written object, γραφή could mean ‘line,’ whence graph in the sense of ‘diagram representing numerical values.’ The dual use of –graph to refer both to that which is written and that which writes that has been the source of some confusion.
-gram comes from Greek γράμμα ‘something written or engraved,’ a noun formed from the verb γράφειν. So, for example, a telegram is the “writing” produced by a telegraph. Or, more graphically, “Season’s Greetings” is the psammogram (ψάμμος ‘sand’) and the psammograph is the stick that the likely psammographer (the gentleman in the sweatshirt) is brandishing in the picture below.

Psammogram, psammograph, and psammographer
The suffixes –glyph, -graph, and -gram are Greek and, with some notable exceptions, are generally preceded by Greek combining roots—petro- (πέτρα ‘rock’), phono- (φωνή ‘sound’), psammo- (ψάμμος ‘sand’), and so on. Indeed, words consisting of a combining root and a suffix tend to be of the form Language1 + Language2 (Greek + Greek, Latin + Latin, English + English): compare, for example, manuscript (Latin manus ‘hand’ + Latin scriptus ‘written’) and English woodcut with the preceding Greek + Greek examples.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule of thumb—for example, pictograph and typewriter, the former consisting of a Latinate root and a Greek suffix, and the latter consisting of Greek root and a native English suffix. Hybrids result from a number of factors, which include (a) the phenomena the hybrids designate were unknown to the ancient Greek- and Latin-speaking world, (b) the appropriate Greek or Latin affix is already in use and can’t be recycled without potential ambiguity (as in the case of
–graph), (c) knowledge of Greek and Latin has become less common, and people have come to think of the building blocks for new 25¢ words as residing in a single mixed bag marked “Classical Language” which can be drawn from as needed without regard to specific language of origin, (d) given the choice between a Greek, Latin, or native English affix, familiarity with one over another may tip the balance, or (e) sociolinguistic considerations favor the creation of something between an Anglo-Saxon 5¢ new word and a classical 25¢ neologism.

Pictograph and typewriter (both coined in the mid 1800s) are illustrative cases in point, one to designate something old and the other, something new. The picto- of pictograph comes from Latin pictus ‘(something) painted’ from the verb pingere ‘to adorn with colors, to paint, to tattoo.’ (The Picts are generally thought to be so called because of the practice, described in Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, of dying their faces blue, making their appearance “more horrible in battle.”) Why picto- instead of a Greek combining root? Presumably it was pingere’s extended meaning of ‘to draw (a picture)’ that the coiners of the term (and its slightly later cousin, pictogram) had in mind,’ picture being a commonly known and appropriate point of reference, and for that reason alone surely preferable to, say, *glyphograph.

The type- of typewriter is Greek in origin (τύπος ‘a blow, an impression [i.e., the mark made by a blow]’) but it’s unlikely that the person who coined the term had that in mind. Rather, it seems plausible that the idea was to present the new technology in as readily accessible, user-friendly terms as possible. (Not so friendly is the typographical error, made only slightly more friendly when shortened to typo.) In France, on the other hand, what has come to be generally called a machine à écrire (‘typing machine,’ like machine à laver ‘washing machine’) was originally dubbed a dactylographe or (as my Petit Larousse from the 1920s says is preferable) dactylotype, δάκτυλος being Greek for ‘finger,’ and while a French typist is still a dactylo (short for dactylopgaphe ‘personne dont la profession est de taper à la machine’), dactylographie in the sense of ‘typescript’ is now more commonly tapuscrit.

In our upcoming book, Short Cuts, I wrote a section on the meaning and construction of suicide notes.   During the research for this piece, I found that legal issues can surround these notes.

Firstly, who is the legal owner of the note?  Just because the note is marked “To Mary”, it’s still considered part of a legal judgement as to the cause of death.  In cases of celebrities, the press can and have requested the text and facsimile of notes, since they are part of the public legal record.

The legal system enters the picture again in cases where a medical examiner, after viewing all the evidence, including the content of a note left at the scene, rules the cause of death a suicide.   When the surviving family disagrees, a lawsuit can follow.  A similar case entered the headlines this week when the wife of talk-show host Larry King was hospitalized following a drug overdose, leaving behind a note that stated a purposeful intent, according to authorities:

“Wording on the letter led me to believe that [Southwick] had intentionally taken the quantity of pills,”

while the family disagrees with the evidence:

“Southwick’s father told investigators that Southwick is ‘always depressed, but she had not mentioned … that she would want to hurt herself or take her own life.’ “

In the end, this case is reported as “possible” suicide, despite evidence to the contrary.

The third legal area is the issue of a medical directive, common in “living wills” and other legal instruments.  Should a medical directive placed in a suicide note be followed?  If it is considered that a person that takes their own life is mentally altered, does the document have validity?

In a paper in the May 2001 issue of “Critical Care” titled “‘Round-table’ ethical debate: is a suicide note an authoritative ‘living will’?” these questions were addressed.

In this paper, a scenario is introduced where a patient is rushed to the emergency room with a near fatal gunshot wound to the head.  Damage is extensive, and survival is possible, but the patient’s  quality of life could be significantly diminished. A note found at the scene clearly indicated the individual’s wish to die.  The individual is estranged from family.

Should extraordinary measures be pursued?  Should life support systems be implemented?

The participants in this paper were spilt.  While most argued that the competency of the note’s author was central and that because the cause of the critical situation was self-inflicted (as opposed to a terminal decease) the emergency room staff was left with no course other than to pursue all measures to save the individual’s life.  Others argued that note must be considered to some extent, arguing that “informal” methods of receiving directives, such as a patient stating “Don’t do stupid stuff to me”, is often weighed in the hospital staff’s decision-making process.

What do you think?  Do we consider the competency and emotional state of a living will posted to an attorney?  What rights do we have as individuals?

“Police: Larry King’s Wife May Have Attempted Suicide”
By Ken Lee and Dahvi Shira
Thursday June 10, 2010

“‘Round-table’ ethical debate: is a suicide note an authoritative ‘living will’?”

Carved in Stone, Cast in Concrete

Something carved in stone—or more recently, cast in concrete—is supposed to be permanent, to last  4-EVA. Write, etch, chisel, and set can be swapped in for carve and cast more or less willy nilly without altering the figurative meaning of either phrase. That the expression cast in stone has been around rather longer than the technology that made your new kitchen counter possible (though not as long as the expression cast the first stone that lurks as an unindicted coconspirator in the linguistic drapery) is a reminder that a certain amount of distance between figurative and literal meanings is normal and if the figurative eventually upstages the literal, that’s just the way language works.

So, let’s be literal-minded for a moment and ask what sorts of things actually do get carved in stone and where they might appear in a contemporary urban setting. It turns out that the offerings are quite varied, as the following photographs suggest.



 A public building often identifies itself by its lintel, which may be made of stone, in which the building’s name or function has been carved. The West Branch of the Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Library shown here offers the viewer four clues in stone, each more abstract as we approach the sky, that this is a public library. Sometimes, public buildings such as libraries, schools, police and fire stations get “repurposed” as a town’s demographics change with the result that your condo or that trendy new restaurant may be mislabeled.

Mausoleums are typically not open to the public though the land on which they sit often is. Suffice it to say that as far as the resemblance between a  mausoleum and a library goes, if nothing else, they both tend to be clearly labeled, often in stone. One difference between the two examples here is in the mausoleum’s use of negative space chiseled out to form the letters.


What can you infer about the life commemorated by a gravestone? Sometimes little or nothing and sometimes quite a lot. If the gravestone is in a cemetery devoted to people, it is reasonable to suppose at least that the stone marks the site dedicated to a person. The person’s remains may or may not be buried at the site—for example, if the stone bears a date of birth but no date of death, it is probably safe to assume that the person whose name appears associated with the date is still among the living and therefore very much above ground. Similarly, if the stone is simply a marker inscribed with a plot number, you may have to make inquiries with the cemetery’s keepers for information about the owner of the plot to determine his or her particulars.

Of course, even the most detailed inscription is subject to the limitations of space and the medium, which is difficult to work and in which a misspelling is not easily corrected once it’s been, well, carved in stone.

Other Memorials

Gravestones commemorate those who have lived, both the ordinary and the famous. Statues tend to commemorate the latter and to keep them in the public eye.

This monument to Abbot Mekhitar—founder of the Armenian Catholic order that bears his name—contains not only the subject’s likeness, dates, and most notable accomplishment but the names of the monument’s sponsors and the date of its installation. The tradition of identifying the person or persons responsible for erecting a monument is a long one going back to ancient times and is still very much with us:


Like the memorial statue’s inclusion of the date on which it was erected, a building’s cornerstone often tells us when the building’s construction was undertaken.

Cornerstones can include information beyond the date. In the present example, a cross on one face of the stone tells us that this is a Christian church. Some cornerstones are hollow and contain cultural artifacts of the year of the building’s construction. (For example, see www.fst.org/capsule.htm.)

In a Class by Itself

During the Depression, the entrepreneur Roger Babson commissioned a team of stone cutters to carve inspirational words and phrases out of some two dozen boulders in the Massachusetts woods formerly inhabited by the residents of the abandoned settlement known today as Dog Town. Ordinarily (Erma Bombeck’s tombstone notwithstanding), a monument in stone is framed by someone improving on the work of Mother Nature. Here, the frameworks are as the retreating glaciers left them millennia ago altered only to the extent required to expose the messages that we are perhaps to imagine have been locked within simply waiting to be revealed for our edification.

Photo courtesy of Eric Handley

One of the Dog Town boulders  displays the work of two hands, that of the stone cutter and that of the graffitist.

Photo courtesy of Eric Handley

Like the creators of ancient petroglyphs, the author of the neatly painted inscription below the original cutting is anonymous. So, of course, is the person who cut the original inscription, though presumably his identity was at east at one time known and a matter of record, while all we know about the graffitist is that he was either shaky in his Greek or interrupted while at his labors. (Actually, we don’t really even know that the graffitist was a he rather than a she.) Indeed, there is a range in the degree of anonymity in the authorship of words in stone or (in case you thought we had forgotten) concrete.

Dave’s handwriting was not nearly as neat as the author’s of “6,” but at least he signed his (presumably first) name. The significance of the “74” is not clear to us in the year 2010, but it is probably not his age at the time of writing nor, given the normal wear and tear on the heavily trafficked sidewalk, short for “1974” either, something we may ponder until the inscription is worn away or the sidewalk is repoured.