July 16, 2009
A Genealogy of Tape
After I followed Robin’s link to the photos of the Apollo 11 astronauts, I wondered, “why don’t we have ticker tape parades any more?” Of course, it’s because lower Manhattan isn’t swimming in ticker tape. We’ve got the words (a change in a stock price is still called an uptick or downtick) but the telegraph-and-paper-strip-printing machines are long gone.
On Metafilter, someone asked: “How long will it take to remove the word ‘videotape’ from the collective vocabulary?”
I caught myself yesterday asking somebody if his performance was videotaped. Of course, there is no tape involved in this process any more. Why was that the first phrase that sprang to mind even though “recorded” or “digitally recorded” are the technically accurate terms? How long does it take for language to catch up with technological obsolescence?
The short answer is that it doesn’t. Virtually nothing in language goes away, so long as it’s rooted sufficiently deep - it just restructures itself. Tape is a great example of this. The ticker tape era closed; the magnetic tape era opened. Tape itself went nowhere. Even the meaning of the noun - a thin, flat strip of material - didn’t change. The verb did; “tape” no longer meant “to shower with paper” - that would be “TP” - it means (or meant) to record or to stick. It doesn’t matter what the tape is made from, either. Tape used to just mean “ribbon,” especially a cloth ribbon used to tie clothing or parcels - but that sense is now mostly displaced by tape made of paper, cellophane, and metal.
The great thing about tape is that it shuns whatever qualifiers you want to put on it, and it’s still perfectly clear what it means. Tape is equally adhesive tape, audio tape, video tape, paper tape, surgical tape, the tape at the end of a race. And it always means both the physical strip of tape itself, its container, and its contents, as well as the act of putting the tape into use.
Are there other words that carry the same grammatical structures regardless of their contents? It’s almost like speakers intuitively assume, “well, if ‘tape’ is going to mean a ribbon AND to tie that ribbon, then it HAS to mean the sticky tape AND the act of sticking it, the magnetic tape AND the act of recording to it,” etc. We’re effortlessly swapping contexts all the time.
Claude LÚvi-Strauss called this qualiy of language bricolage - instead of starting from scratch, we fiddle with language, we tinker with it, we make do with the parts we have on hand, like using a key to open a package or a knife to unscrew a screw. Or a piece of duct tape to fix a car. A word like tape can stretch and stick to whatever we need it to.
The great tapes that never became tapes are film reels. Celluloid and acetate film is tape, folks. But celluloid is a product that was derived from an evaporation of the collodion film that was used on glass plates in wet-plate photography. So they called it film, instead.
What’s the future of tape? Will the future find need for long, thin ribbons of material? Will 3M find a way to do away with the strips bearing the adhesive altogether? Are wipes the new tape? I’m not sure. But I’ve got a Beckett play and an 8-Track of Five Leaves Left. I’ll catch you guys in the basement.