Learned Volume 5, Issue 44
This week: a tiny word for tiny bits of detritus, or, how I'm co-opting a new-to-me word for my own novel usage. Here we go!
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Like any good procrastinator, the more I have on my plate, the more tasks I have stacking up in front of me, the more time I spend binge-watching YouTube. It's not much of a coping skill, but it gets me through the night. During one such binge recently, I stumbled across a video from the channel David Hilowitz Music called "Make your own vinyl records at home." Ah yiss.
Assemble a Venn diagram with vinyl record collecting, geeky how-to / DIY projects, and well-produced videos bordering on ASMR. At the center of these three circles you'll find two things: this video and me.
Now, I could go on and onabout why I love vinyl records but suffice it say, it's equal parts nostalgia, the collector gene, and the ritual involved in putting on a record and letting it play. But let's consider that said and talk about this video in particular.
It is well made. It is interesting. But, more important than all that, it taught me a new word: swarf. At about the 4 minute 15 second mark of the video, our narrator is describing the process of the record cutter making a groove in the blank record. As the cutter moves over the blank, small threads of plastic are carved out of the record. These are called swarf.
Now, I love a good bit of jargon but I couldn't quite believe that even in an industry full of made-up words for very specific things, swarf would mean only "the plastic threads that result from cutting a new record." So, off to the dictionary we go.
material (such as metallic particles and abrasive fragments) removed by a cutting or grinding tool
Ah ha. Just as I suspected. Swarf actually has a range of uses outside the record factory. What else can we find?
Etymonline gives us an original usage:
"grit from a grinding tool," 1560s, perhaps ultimately from Old English geswearf "filings," from sweorfan, or from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse svarf "file dust,"
But, Etymonline also tells us that the word was first used to refer to record cutting in the 1930s:
Later used of the material cut out to make grooves of gramophone records (1935).
Moving over to PowerThesaurus.orgwe find synonyms (or near-synonyms) like shavings, cuttings, and filings. Curiously, the site does not mention more aggregated forms of waste like detritus or debris; I'm tempted to classify swarf in with words like flotsam, jetsam, dross, and chaff, that all have specific meanings within the greater classification of byproduct/waste.
It's also interesting to note that for the first 100 random results in the NOW corpus, most refer to some kind of machining work, suggesting that as vinyl recording has fallen off, the word has returned to its original use more and more.
But what's the point of having multiple uses for a word if you can't add to them? I said in the cut that I've been co-opting a new word for my own personal usage. And I have been.
I didn't really make a New Year's resolution this year. Instead, I got out a few projects that had been cast aside during the last busy spell and decided to attempt to try to perhaps make just a tiny bit of progress on them. One of these projects has been trying to get back into a daily drawing habit. During that process, I've found myself adopting and adapting swarf to refer to the endless piles of eraser rubbings and pencil sharpener shavings that accumulate on my desk while I work on a drawing.
It seems fitting if not entirely inline with the original usage of the word. After all, there is no cutting or grinding tool at work on the eraser, unless you count the eraser itself, or maybe the paper? But, on the other hand, a pencil sharpener is exactly that - a cutting tool that removes thin shavings from the pencil. But, eh, close enough.
Besides, if enough people follow me, then maybe by the next time Etymonline updates their listings, we'll have one more entry to send their way.
As I mentioned last week, I'm planning on presenting a short workshop during this year's LingFest. I'm still working on getting the page set-up; please be patient. We’re listed on the schedule and everything!
In the meantime though, here's a little bit of what you can expect:
Let's hold two ideas out for a second. The first is that journaling is a good thing. The second is that there are over a dozen ways, in English, to coin new words. This workshop aims to use the second idea to help us with the first idea. In other words, we're going to make up a bunch of new words and then learn how we can use them in journaling and creative exercises.
The workshop will be held on Zoom and attendance is free! I'll update the page as soon as I have more information about the schedule, etc.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Since we started this letter off with a video about making records, I thought it only appropriate that I give you a couple more videos about making records.
First up is this great explainer video: How Vinyl Records Are Made
And this one from Popular Mechanics: Building a Vinyl Record Factory from Scratch
And finally, Jack White, owner of Third Man Records, gives a tour to Adam Savage of Mythbusters: Adam Savage Visits Third Man Records
From the Archives
I’ve talked about records a few times here, but the most recent was just under a year ago in Learned Volume 4, Issue 48: Coffee Record. Enjoy!
And on and on.
Preferably with a good cocktail and no one else around to impede your enjoyment of either the record or the drink.
This is a new source for me and I'm still in the process of trying them out, so be cautious in your citations.
Detritus is one of my favorite words. Just say it out loud - de-tri-tus. You'll be looking for reasons to use it all this week, I promise you.
Not just to make me better at drawing but to use up some of the eighty-bajillion blank sketchbooks people have given me over the years. Not that I'm complaining.
The technical word is "eraser crumbs" but, c'mon. Yuck.