Typically, writing involves a surface (such as a piece of paper) to hold your message, a tool (such as a pen) to apply the message to that surface, and a medium (such as ink) to embody that message: you use a pen to write in ink on a piece of paper. Most of the terminology we use to refer to different kinds of written message leave one or more of these three components implicit or wholly up to the imagination, either because they’re obvious or deemed unimportant. For example,  petroglyph is explicit as to the surface (stone) but identifies neither the “pen” (chisel? paintbrush? the weather?) nor the “ink” (air, i.e., invisible filler of negative space? paint? patina?). Here are two petroglyphs:

petroglyphs

Petroglyphs

Further precision in terminology is always possible, of course, though sometimes with the potential for ambiguity as in the case of  finger painting and face painting: Finger painting could, after all, refer to the application of henna to your fingers. As for the alternate interpretation of face painting (painting with, rather than on, your face), compare  the suggestion that Jane Russell use the portion of her anatomy for which she was most famous to make her mark in the sidewalk at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, thereby giving new meaning to the term mammography. [See www.seeing-stars.com/immortalized/chinesetheatreforecourt.shtml.]

We have single words, combining forms, and quasi-compounds that we can use to identify the surface, pen, and ink components of various kinds of writing, though almost never all three at once, perhaps because speakers of English tend to prefer strings of adjectives to the kind of polysyllabic whole-word agglutinations found in, say, German or in highfalutin technical language. Or there may be a deep-seated sociolinguistic constraint on the number of attributes we are comfortable combining even implicitly in a single term.

There are, of course, exceptions, such as typescript (or typewriting), a message imprinted on paper by a typewriter’s keys striking a ribbon embedded with ink. (For the role of Gallic fingers in the process, see our earlier posting, “Glyph Notes.”) Or xerox (more properly Xerox™ copy) in which a resinous powder (the ink) is transferred and fixed to paper (the surface) by a mechanism (the pen) using electricity and heat, respectively. But these are exceptions and leave much implicit if not downright obscure.

So, what’s to keep us from coining more revealing terms for such common
surface-pen-ink combinations as those betokened by, say, a hopscotch course chalked on the sidewalk (as opposed to one drawn in the dirt) or the proverbial handwriting on the wall? Leaving aside for the moment the potential obstacles mentioned earlier of a dislike of long words and a difficulty managing multiple attributes at a single lexical go, let’s look at a couple of walls.

No se vende

No se vende

Sorry?

Sorry?

 

“No se vende” (‘Not for sale’) is a message written in paint presumably with a paint brush on a plaster wall. (In the interests of not making our task any harder than it needs to be, we may ignore the fact that the wall is actually brick coated with plaster and is one of the outer walls of a house in a neighborhood of San Miguel de Allende that is undergoing rapid gentrification, largely by anglophone expatriates, in which pranksters occasionally write “Se vende” or “For sale” on their neighbors’ walls in the hopes of attracting the nuisance of unwanted would-be buyers.) “Sorry?” is a cryptic apology spraypainted onto a temporary plywood wall in the Harvard Square subway station.

The “wall” and “writing” components are easy enough: Readers of our earlier “Mark my Marks” posting will already have encountered the Greek term τοιχογραφία (from τοῖχος ‘wall’ and  γραφία ‘writing’), which is attested in English as toichography. So, let’s say that we have here, generically, two toichograms, one written on plaster and the other on wood. For ‘plaster’ and ‘wood,’ we can riffle through the Greek lexicon for suitable combining forms for toicho- to make compounds meaning ‘plaster wall’ and ‘wood wall.’ Why Greek? Because convention says that when you’re coining a word from spare parts, you should try to use parts from the same original language and avoid mix-and-match.

For ‘plaster,’ we can use a combining form of  ’έμπλαστρον (the family resemblance between plaster and -plastron being legitimate), and for ‘wood’ we can use a combining form of ξύλον (the xylo- of, e.g., xylography ‘wood engraving; woodblock printing’). A look at some attested Greek terms for things made from specified materials suggests that plastro- and xylo- should go before –toicho- to form the desired compounds: plastrotoichogram and xylotoichogram.  We can live with the remote possibility that a reasonable person would take plastrotoicho- or xylotoicho- as pen rather than paper.

Now all we need are combining forms for ‘paint’ and ‘spraypaint’ or maybe ‘paint,’ ‘brush,’‘spray,’ and ‘can.’ Hmm. Plastrotoichopeniculopigmentogram?  Xylotoichospraypaintogram? We may have hit a brick wall.

No loitrin

No loitrin

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