By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we explore the word album, and its connections to The Beatles, elves, eggs, and university students in medieval Germany.
Record albums are kind of a quaint artifact of the last century. By which I mean actual vinyl records albums in large cardboard sleeves. They were in turn replaced by the much smaller compact discs held by brittle plastic jewel cases, and now CDs too are largely on the way out, replaced by electronic files downloaded from iTunes or the like. And how do you have your favourite musicians sign an electronic file anyway? The old record albums gave designers a large canvas on which to create innovative album art, which later diminished on the smaller CD booklets.
One simple yet at the time quite innovative album design was the eponymous album by The Beatles that is best known today as The White Album. Designed by artist Richard Hamilton in the style of concept art of the late 1960s, it was simply a plain white cover with the band’s name embossed at a slight angle and no other title. Interesting thing that, as the album’s lack of a name came to be replaced by a kind of redundant name. You see the word album originally meant white, so the white album sort of means the white white thing. Album was originally a Latin word, an adjective that meant white which was frequently used in ancient Rome as a noun to refer to a white tablet on which something could be inscribed, such as public edicts, notices, or lists of names.
In fact, we can trace the origin back even further to the Indo-European word root albho- which also meant white, which was handed down to a number of Indo-European derived languages. It crops up in the Germanic languages as the word elf to refer to powerful magical beings in ancient Germanic folklore. The belief that a misshapen child was actually fathered by a mischievous elf rather than a human father leads, through the language Old Norse, to the word oaf. Well would you rather be the child of an elf or an oaf? And speaking of elves and other magical beings, Tolkien takes the name Gandalf from an Old Norse mythological name composed of gandr meaning wand or magic and elf, so magic white guy. And of course in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf become Gandalf the White, so another redundant white name, magic white guy the white. And speaking of white wizards, I’m sure you’ll already have guessed that the Albus in Albus Dumbledore also means white. Well I suppose white magic is appropriate to good wizards. While we’re on the topic of powerful magical figures, we may as well complete the set with Oberon, the king of the fairies best known from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose name also derives from the same Indo-European root. And also in the realm of British folklore, Albion, the ancient name for Britain, likely comes from this same root, referring to the famed white cliffs of Dover.
In another development, this same album root comes to refer to quite a different colour in the word auburn, which originally referred in medieval Latin and Old French to an off-white colour or blond, but perhaps because it sounded similar to brown it came in English to refer to reddish-brown, generally in reference to hair colour.
In another more white-related development, we get the word daub from Latin de-albare ‘to whiten’. When you daub, you cover something, such as a wall with a white substance such as plaster or whitewash, and it’s in this sense that we have the phrase wattle and daub which refers to a wall building technique consisting of a lattice of wooden strips called wattle and a sticky filler made up of things such as mud, clay, straw, animal dung, and so forth. Because of the somewhat crude and messy nature of this process, daub now also has the broader sense of ‘to smear’.
So how do we get from a word meaning white to the modern senses of album referring to collections of songs or photographs? Well it turns out that 15th century German university students had a practice of getting their fellow students and instructors to sign their personal copies of the bible, which could then be used a kind of credential to show how good your education was, kind of like a list of references. Printers then began to accommodate this by intentionally leaving blank pages in bibles for just that purpose, and eventually completely blank books were produced to collect signatures. As early modern university students they were well versed in Latin and could never pass up an opportunity for a classical reference (you know what university eggheads are like – and yes albumen, the white part of an egg, comes from the same album word), and so such a book was known as an album amicorum or white book of friends. Kind of like Facebook. Or rather a yearbook, like the ones you get in high school, which often have blank pages for signatures, often with the title autographs. Indeed the tradition of the album amicorum also survives in modern guestbooks and autograph books.
Anyway, these blank books came to not only be inscribed with signatures, but also little messages, bits of poetry, and other such items, and eventually became little scrapbooks for preserving mementos. And when photography was invented, these blank books could be used to store photographs too, hence the photo album. On the subject of photography, by the way, one of the first methods of making a photographic print from a negative, invented by by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1850, was the albumen print, so named because it uses eggwhite to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper.
But back to the musical album. In the early days of commercially available sound recordings, the original phonograph records, made of shellac, ran at 78 revolutions per minute and only had enough space to hold one song per side. However, a bunch of 78s, as they later came to be called, could be collected together in a book-like sleeve which resembled an photograph or scrapbook album, and so they came to be known as a record album. When the long playing album or LP was invented, which was made of vinyl, had a narrower groove and smaller needle, and ran at only 33 1/3 rpm, all the songs could be held on one record, but the name album stuck. And it’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that this technological development led to the idea of a collection of songs as an artistic whole. Even now the word album is still used to refer to CDs and even collections of digital files. But again, how can you have your favourite musician sign a digital file? Unsurprising that having your record album signed became a popular tradition, since signatures were the original purpose for the album. And strangely appropriate that the White Album is called the White Album, isn’t it? Now I bet a signed copy of the White Album would be worth quite a bit...