Actually nobody wants dead air, the term broadcasters use for radio silences during transmission, particularly those longer than, say, a cough — whence the term “cough button” for the switch on the announcer’s console used for brief silent interruptions of the studio’s live sound, in contrast with the pure tone, usually rendered as “bleep,” which has accordingly become ubiquitous participial euphemism for any swearword one cannot say on air, e.g., “Now wait just a bleeping moment.” (In the transcriptions of the tapes Richard Nixon rashly made of his conversations in the Oval Office, the equivalent of “bleep[ing]” was “[expletive deleted”].)  Dead air that last longer than a few seconds leaves the listener uncertain as to whether the station has gone off the air entirely or the announcer has taken a hike (whether to the bathroom or the next world) especially when occurring at the end of a track that’s playing from a turntable.

Human beings ordinarily breathe air in and out about 40 times a minute when newly born.  Healthy adults breathe somewhere between 12 and 15 times a minute when at rest, but 35 to 40 when exercising. An athlete in top condition and performing at peak, however, can breath as often as 60 to 70 breaths per minute. (Whence a favorite joke of one of our grammar-school teachers, raised in the days when boys wore knickerbockers: “His breath came in short pants.”) Of the air we breathe, 78% is nitrogen, which for metabolic purposes is irrelevant, although dissolved in the bloodstream it can cause lethal cramps (“the bends”) for underwater caisson workers who come to the surface too quickly rather than undergoing gradual decompression. By contrast, oxygen, which makes up almost all of the remainder (21%, the rest being carbon dioxide, helium, argon, and other trace gases) is absolutely essential to human metabolism, and if its supply to the brain is choked off, death is sure to follow.


Antoine Lavoisier

The Lavoisiers Taking the Air

Of the scientific revolutions throughout history one of the most dramatic centered on understanding the nature of oxygen and its role in both respiration and combustion. It was well known from ancient times that without air we suffocate and that fires deprived of air go out. By the mid-1700s, the prevailing belief among European “pneumatic chemists” was that there was a substance in air called phlogiston whose action extinguished flame, and when Joseph Priestley first produced something close to pure oxygen by heating red oxide of mercury, he believed it at first to be nitrous oxide; later he modified this conclusion and pronounced it to be ordinary air from which the phlogiston has largely been removed. It was left for his opposite number across the English Channel, Antoine Lavoisier, to isolate oxygen and to identify it as the element that joined with other substances in the process of combustion, and thus accounted for the added weight of the burnt product—a result flat contrary to the predictions of phlogiston theory. (Lavoisier’s fine brain would meet its own end by oxygen deprivation through exsanguination, as an immediate consequence of his being guillotined by Charles-Henri Sanson in 1794 at the height of the French Revolution.)

The English word air is actually a convergence of several etymons. The stuff we breathe comes from Latin āēr, ‘air as a substance, lower part of the atmosphere’ (this second meaning in contrast with aethēr, ‘ether,’ the upper “pure” air which in antiquity was
supposed to permeate the sublunar sphere and, later, all of outer space until its existence was disproved by Michelson and Morley’s definitive experiment in the early 20th century). Both āēr and aethēr were lifted straight from Greek (aēr and aithēr respectively, which explains why āēr is two syllables, whereas the ae– in aethēr is a diphthong), and in poetic usage, at least, retained the Greek accusative-case ending –a. But āēr soon got assimilated into ordinary everyday speech (Plautus was already using it familiarly by the time he wrote his Comedy of Asses in the early 2d century B.C.E.), such that the accusative form āerem became quite commonplace; from it French (and English in turn) derived air in the first two senses in the Petit Larousse: ‘gaseous fluid that makes up the atmosphere’ and ‘manner, fashion.’ The Latin poetic accusative āera, on the other hand, was the source for the Italian metathesis, aria, likewise borrowed into French as air in the sense of ‘song’– a convergence reminiscent of the Yankee’s answer to the motor tourist at the fork in the road that “the left one be straighter, but the right one be prettier.”


The Short Cuts chapter “On or About Your Person” offers a survey of personal text-bearing accoutrements that taken together could be said to serve as a person’s measure. There are of course shorter metrics than the inventory of a person’s wardrobe or wallet that can be used to size a person up—for example, “Money is the measure of mankind” or, more recently, David Crane’s suggestion (in his article “’Smart Power’ and the Rule of Law” []) that “[t]he true measure of mankind should be in the strength of a hand shake.” As a unit of measurement, the strength of a hand shake follows in a long tradition of using human anatomy as a means of reckoning. (The tradition of using “mankind” to refer to humankind, and “man” or “Man” as the generic personification of the human race, is another story for another day.)

The Sophist Protagoras is credited with saying that “Man is the measure of all things [pántōn chrēmátōn métron estìn ánthrōpos]—of existing things that they exist, and of nonexisting things that they do not exist [tôn mèn óntōn hōs éstin, tôn dè ouk óntōn hōs ouk éstin].” In other words, it is humans that determine what’s real and what isn’t, ánthrōpos being the gender-neutral term for ‘(a) person,’ contrasting with anēr ‘(a) man’ and gynē, ‘(a) woman.’ Here, it’s the human brain that’s the measuring stick and what’s being measured is phenomenological reality. To measure the concrete in the here and now, we have typically turned to more readily accessible parts of the body.

For the Romans, a mile was originally a thousand paces (Latin mīlia passūs ‘), a passus being  a stride, or, double-step equal to five Roman pedēs ‘feet.’ (The Roman mile was slightly shorter than the present-day English mile—about 5000 feet to our modern 5280, which may say something about how nutrition has improved over the intervening two millennia.) Among the ancient Greek job classifications was one that we might nowadays call a “measured-mile man”—their term was bêmatistēs, a bêma (plural: bêmata) being a pace (cf. the verb baineîn, ‘to walk,’ whence acrobat—originally a high-wire artist [ákros = high]). The job of the bêmatistēs was to walk with a pace of such consistency that it could be used to measure long distances. A modern version of this method was used during the British colonial period to survey the Indian subcontinent preparatory to building its railway system, and proved to be surprisingly accurate, the groundwork having been laid, according to tradition, by Vishnu who, in three wide strides (tredhorugāyah), measured out the earthly and atmospheric regions and established the upper meeting-place [i.e., heaven].

The people of Israel in the Bible measured lots of things in cubits, cubitus being the Latin for elbow and by extension for the distance from elbow to the tip of one’s middle finger; the specs for Noah’s ark  (Gen. 6:15) were 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits deep. The fathom (Old English fæðm, ‘outstretched arms’)  is nowadays used mostly by seafarers to measure the depth of water, while on land, horses are measured in hands (4 inches); an ordinary horse will measure some 15 hands high at the shoulder, or five feet, and after the races we may repair to a tavern to celebrate our win (or as the case may be to console our loss by a nose), where the barkeep will pour us three fingers of bourbon or other distilled spirits in a shot glass— that is, about an ounce. Ounce does not come from our bodily nomenclature—it is instead from Latin uncia, ‘twelfth part,’ also the source for inch—although the twelfth part of the old pre-metric French foot [pied] was called a pouce, which is also the word for thumb (as was its linear ancestor, Latin pollex). In recent years, the world of computers and their user-friendly graphic interfaces has been enriched by the .tmb file, short for “thumb(nail),” from the artist’s thumbnail sketch, which was about how big such a drawing was supposed to be.

Although we do not measure absolute height by heads, we do make use of them in a relative scale, colloquially saying that X is a head taller than Y. Then there are arm’s-length relationships, the metaphor for a distance calculated to satisfy concerns over conflict of interest. And figures of speech by which we express short intervals of time are often calibrated to our bodies as well (in a heartbeat, in the twinkling of an eye), as is the  hair’s-breadth escape from danger.

Ad hoc measurements have employed the human body as well, as when the Massachusetts Avenue bridge across the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge was marked off by brothers from MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, whose chapter house was on the Boston side, using a freshman pledge named Oliver Smoot in October of 1958, and declared to be a distance of “364.4 smoots +/- one ear.” The markings would be repainted twice a year by LCA members over the course of the next half-century, an enigmatic landmark that acquired over time the cachet of a local legend. A titanium-alloy plaque was placed on the Cambridge side in 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original event, Smoot himself having graduated in 1962 and, appropriately enough, gone on to a career in standards and measurement, eventually chairing the board of directors of the American Standards Institute.

Although the telephone, the burglar alarm, and the alarm clock are predicated on the Industrial Revolution, bells have been distracting our attention from the ordinary continuum of our lives for millennia. With the exception of Islam, every major religion uses bells in connection with worship, whether to call the faithful to prayer (the evening Angelus), at the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine during mass, or in celebratory peals as the newlyweds leave the church in a hail of mixed birdseed (formerly rice, but then someone figured out that it swelled up inside birds who ate it and killed them. Millet is recommended instead.)

Belling the cat refers to putting a collar on Kitty on which is hung a crotal; this type of bell is a dapped metal sphere with a slit in it and a pebble inside, and comes in a variety of sizes, the larger ones being used for sleighbells. Cowbells, on the other hand, are usually fabricated from sheet metal that is welded or brazed into a tapered rectangular solid open at the bottom with a clapper suspended inside. The semiotic function of all these would seem to be “Here comes an animal [so get out of the way].” The cowbell found a second career in the trap set of dance-band percussionists, not infrequently for humorous effect (compare the kettledrum glissando. Both featured prominently in the ragtime signature music for the Ernie Kovacs TV shows.)

We have all been thoroughly conditioned to respond to bells. From a church bell rung to signal the canonical hours and summoning worshipers to services, to the chime that marks the more finely calibrated time of a public clock (the word clock originally meant ‘bell,’ and is cognate with the glocken- of glockenspiel, a direct steal from German meaning ‘bell-play.)’ A homely example is the rural Swedish vällingklocka (‘gruel-bell’), a feature of every substantial farm from the early 1800s on whose sound was imitated “in a rich folklore of rhymes and ditties,” according to Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren’s Culture Builders (Rutgers: 1987), whose “message was often a social protest about hard working conditions and bad food, ‘blue gruel and sour herring.'”

Of course, it is not only people whose behavior can be regulated and conditioned with the bell as stimulus, as the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov famously demonstrated with his salivating dogs. Still, to a far greater extent than our four-legged friends, we are suckers for the semiotics of sound, with a rich lore of poetry and song to show it. Poe’s “The Bells” is a triptych of our sociological associations with bells of three different metals; rounds such as “Great Tom is Cast” and “Maudit Sois-Tu, Carilloneur” play on the inescapable presence of local towers populated by bells and their ringers; and Dorothy Sayers built what is arguably her best murder mystery (The Nine Tailors) around a trope of change-ringing, set in a rural church in England’s fen country between the wars.

Art nicely illustrates life in Christina Kubisch’s Clocktower Project at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams in the old Sprague Electric Company factory building, whose two bells were once a pervasive feature of the town’s soundscape. By digitally recording the sounds the bells make when played with a variety of tools from hammers and brushes to her bare hands, and then coupling the tonal data-base to solar sensors mounted on the tower, Kubich works with a sound spectrum that varies according to the ambient natural light and functions as the input to an aleatory program that generates short “compositions” which are played through speakers on the tower throughout the day.

The striking of a bell in a regular rhythm exemplifies the parceling up of time even as it signifies it. A sundial creeps; water in a clepsydra trickles and sand in an hourglass quietly whooshes, and clocks tick, all pretty inconspicuously, but a chime is by definition meant to get your attention, from the village clock to your great-grandfather’s “repeater” pocket watch (at least before its miniature fusee chain broke). The trope of the striking clock is conspicuous in a number of pieces from the classical music repertory, such as the “Dance of the Hours” from Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (immortalized in the Walt Disney film Fantasia‘s animated ballet-bouffe of alligators, ostriches, and hippos), the stroke of midnight that opens Camille Saint-Saëns’ tone poem Danse Macabre, and the morning bell that summons the demons back to hell at the end of the drunken peasant’s witch-sabbath dream in Modest Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsk Fair, a scene better known to Westerners in its orchestral arrangement (by Mussorgsky’s friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, of Scheherezade fame) as Night on Bald Mountain.

A didactic song from our earliest school days capitalized on the obvious fact that the larger bell the louder, and contrariwise. Its lyrics told of a king who, on hearing the bells at his coronation, engaged the smallest, not the largest, to play at his wedding because he “got a headache from the bong, bong, bong/But he loved the little bell that just went ding.” The analogy with loud vs. soft-spoken children seemed self-evident at the time: the former may be denied the gratification of their wishes by the big people that the quiet ones get. But as this runs contrary to most children’s experience (which runs instead to the proverb about squeaky wheels), it is perhaps no wonder that our teachers decided not to press the point through tiresome exegesis, but merely allowed the song to adhere to our memory like a cockleburr, where it has remained ever since.

New speakers of English may be perplexed at the fact that there are often two words for what appear to be the same thing (synonyms: rock/stone, snake/serpent), pairs of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings (homonyms: capital/capitol, night/knight, rye/wry, reed/read, red/read), double meanings for words spelled and sometimes, though not always, pronounced the same (homographs: cleave/cleave, till/till, gloss/gloss, which are also homophones, and read/read, bass/bass, which are heterophones), differently-spelled derivatives from the same root, with related but diverging meanings (doublets: chief/chef, quean/quean), alternative spellings for the same word with the same meaning (allographs: gray/grey, judgment/judgement, draftsman/draughtsman)—especially between American and British English, which also offers such semantic cleft sticks (*allosemes?) as standard-English lift (U.S.: ‘ride in someone else’s car’; U.K.: ‘elevator’) and the more treacherous slang fanny (U.S.: ‘posterior’; U.K.: ‘vulva’).

In some instances these pairings can be explained by their having come into the language by different routes: Equus, horse, and caballus are classical Latin, Germanic, and vulgar Latin words, respectively, for the same animal and give us equitation (a fancy term for riding of the sort on which one is judged at a show), its literal translation horsing (usually in conjunction with around; compare horseplay), and via French, chivalry—the code of conduct originally expected of the cavalry (i.e. mounted troops of good socioeconomic standing: In Rome members of the order of equites had to be able to spend at least five thousand gold pieces a year and keep out of trouble.) Given England’s history of conquest first by Rome and then by the Normans, it may come as no surprise, then, that the twenty-five-cent words are often latinate while the nickel ones are Germanic: osculate/kiss, ecclesiastical/church, inebriated/drunk, perambulate/walk around, copulate/bonk (or boink).

The twenty-five-cent/five-cent distinction informs euphemism as well, particularly in the medical profession, whose news is often bad for the patient and relatives and seems to cry out for swaddling in a soft fleece of latinity: myocardial infarction/heart attack, terminal/ending in death, and so on, with which may be compared such folksier substitutions for the unsettling or the taboo as kick the bucket, buy the farm, and go paws up. Of course, a notorious trouble with euphemisms, especially those applied to persons whom the former label was thought to denigrate, is the way in which popular usage overtakes the kinder, gentler term and makes that pejorative, prompting a revisionist attempt at linguistic political correctness: feeble-minded/retarded/developmentally challenged, though the flip side is also known—a cretin was originally a Christian.

Calling the same thing by different names has an analog in what musicians call enharmonic notation, a corollary of the existence of both sharps and flats. (Historically, flats came first.) Thus C# on the piano is the same note as Db: the black key to the right of C natural and to the left of D natural. It is this ambiguity that allows an augmented triad such as G-B-Eb (to take an example from Wagner’s Parzifal) to straddle two harmonic keys at once, depending on which third (B-G or Eb-Cb, Cb being B natural by a different name) is heard as the core of the triad from which the third note is the deviation. (Not surprisingly, this particular triad gets a lot of play in the music for Klingsor’s castle, for, as David Lewin points out in a chapter on Wagner in his Studies in Music with Text [Oxford University Press, 2006], “Only by voyaging to and through the magic Cb/B castle, the seam that permits an interface with the other world, can Parsifal ultimately repatriate the miraculous,” allowing the cast, as Victor Borge said in connection with another opera, to get their money and go home.)

So do C# and Db constitute a distinction without a difference? One is reminded of the routine in which Elaine May sings the Gershwin Brothers’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (“You like potato and I like potahto/You like tomato and I like tomahto,” etc.) failing to distinguish between the different pronunciations of the same words on which the lyric turns. Not so funny was the routine related in the Bible [Judges 12:4-6] involving different pronunciations of the word shibboleth. (Mod. Hebrew [šibolet/sibolet]). For the Gileadites, the initial sound was sh ([š]) while for the Ephraimites it was s ([s]). Suspected Ephraimites attempting to pass as Gileadites were asked to say the word as a test of their bona fides with dire consequences for failure. In more recent times (1937), an eerily similar test gave the “Parsley Massacre” its name, the victims this time being some 20,000-30,000 Haitians living on the border in the Dominican Republic who were tested on their ability to identify a sprig of parsley (Spanish perejil, Haitian Creole pèsi, Standard French persil) in Spanish.

But how about a difference without a distinction? For this, we turn to the Indian grammarian Panini (or, more properly, Pāṇini) who flourished in the fifth century BCE. The final statement in his monumental grammar of Sanskrit (the Aṣṭādhyāyī [‘The Eight Books’]) reads अ अ इति and is somewhat problematic to transliterate. Literally, it’s a a iti (‘a a thus’), but the sense is something like “For the whole of this treatise, I’ve been treating the difference between “short a” (अ) and “long a” (आ) as though it were simply one of duration ([a] vs. [a:]), but actually that was just a convenient fiction: “short a” is really schwa ([ə]).”