Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On String

String (/strɪŋ/) is a wonderful thing. At first it seems mundane, even boring, but the slightest investigation reveals that string may very well be the most versatile and useful invention made by man. It has shaped our physical and linguistic world. We love string.

Its versatility has led it to infiltrate our language. String is highly flexible, in more ways than one. String is used in musical instruments, necklaces, bows, and sports equipment. You can use it to fly kites, tie shoelaces, bind books, control puppets and even to tie things together.

“To go to heaven in a string” refers, rather jovially, to being hanged. The Oxford English Dictionary places the use of this phrase to 1710 with the publication of T. Ward’s The English Reformation and claims it referred originally to the Jesuits who were hanged during the reign of Elizabeth I.(1) After this point the use of the word ‘string’ in describing a hanging became common.

String is a device that allows you to control the world around you. You can string someone up, lead someone by a string, string things together, string someone along, and pull the strings. ‘No strings attached’ are the failsafe watchwords of contracts.

‘String’ can also be used, rarely, to mean a lure. T. Carlyle warned in 1837 that “we walk in a world of Plots; strings, universally spread, of deadly gins and falltraps”. (2) String is such an easy metaphor to grasp that it is indeed luring. It tempts us with its versatility.

The word ‘string’ has been appropriated for all kinds of new theories and inventions, including, string theory, cosmic string, brock strings, string galvanometers and G-strings. This list is by no means exhausitive.

String is demonstrably all around us. It's in our products, our theories and our language. Imagine a world without string and it is a lesser world at that. Without string we'd all be strung out to dry.

1 "string, n.". OED Online. November 2010. Oxford University Press. 9 March 2011
2 Ibid

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