“Something Runs Through The Whole Thread”

The first zoom was the probably the sound of a train.

The various online dictionaries all give slightly different dates for the earliest use of the word zoom: a few confidently say 1892 (with no citation), others say 1886 (also no source), one gives a range 1885-1890 (same), and another is more circumspect with “late nineteenth century.” They all agree, however, that the word “zoom” originated as onomatopoeia: the sound of something traveling fast. Anything zooming by in the late nineteenth century would have been powered by steam. Perhaps it was a train, or a steam-powered automobile.

So zoom is the sound of speed – not the old speed of horses, but the new speed, vibrating and mechanical, exciting and high-tech. In the twentieth century, different aspects of “zoom” were then taken up by two emerging technological domains: photography and filmmaking on the one hand, and aviation on the other.

“Zooming” in aviation is a straightforward application of the original use. A pilot builds up a great deal of speed traveling parallel to the plane of the earth, then uses the build-up kinetic energy to fling the plane straight up into the sky, faster than it could go using just its thrusters. It’s easy to imagine what the ground looks like during this maneuver: rapidly shrinking as it gets further away and less detailed.

“Zoom” in photography and filmmaking builds from this aspect of speed: the changes in visual perception that occur when one is traveling quickly either toward or away from something. To zoom in is to quickly get closer in perception, seeing more detail of a smaller area. To zoom out is to quickly get further away, taking in the big picture in an instant.

All those specialized senses of “zoom” are still in existence, but the computerized display of information has made another sense of the word ubiquitous. Zooming in and out is viewing some underlying dataset at higher and lower resolution, as if zooming in and out with a camera lens, or as if zooming up and down in a plane, perhaps. But the modern sense of “zoom” is embedded in an extremely elegant gesture performed with two fingers on a touch interface. First, the fingers are placed close together touching the screen, to indicate the tiny are of the map or other data set to view more closely. Then these fingers are spread apart, still touching the screen, as if stretching out the space indicated to the desired apparent size.

The modern “zoom” makes no noise; it’s completely divorced from the loud vibrations of the onomatopoetic origin. The merely metonymic association of a particular sound with speed is broken, replaced with a more functional, metaphoric association of speed with quick changes in visual perception associated with movement.

You would look in vain to find the true essence of zoom – the particular thing that connects all these meanings together. And yet they are clearly related. If we don’t get anywhere performing eidetic reduction on things like “zoom,” in seeking out the true essence of categories that provoke us to understanding, it might be that there is no such essence to be found. Wittgenstein offers those in this position consoling metaphors, as therapy for the urge to distill into essences.

The most widely-known metaphor Wittgenstein uses to comfort the seekers after essences is that of family resemblance. Look for the unifying quality or essence of that which are called games, he invites – board games, card games, sports, informal children’s games – and you will not find one. Rather, you will find that “games” resemble each other the way members of a family do: they each share some of an overlapping mess of qualities, as some members of a family share eye color, others share nose shape, and others share an aversion to cilantro, but there is no one single quality common to all.

I have related the zoom example, however, so that it may illustrate Wittgenstein’s second therapeutic metaphor, which is less known, but, I think, more apt than the first. It is a metaphor from an ancient method of textile manufacture. Here is the whole passage (section 67 of the Philosophical Investigations, Anscombe’s translation, emphasis mine):

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a—direct—relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions—namely the disjunction of all their common properties”—I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread— namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres“.

The family resemblance metaphor depicts how things in a linguistic category relate to each other, taking the category as a given. The thread-spinning analogy depicts the process by which linguistic categories are formed and expanded. I suspect that Wittgenstein’s second metaphor is not as widely known because the source domain for the metaphor is not alive in people’s heads. I am surprised that Wittgenstein himself was aware enough of the process of spinning that such a metaphor would occur to him. The typical modern is, if anything, more ignorant of how yarn is spun than of how words acquire new meanings.

In order to make cloth, fiber must be spun into threads, and threads woven or knitted into fabric. With rare modern exceptions, cloth is made of threads (whether knitted or woven from them), and threads are spun from fiber – wool, linen, cotton, hemp, silk, yak, possum, synthetics, and many more. Each fiber has a different set of properties, but they share one essential quality: when twisted together, they become entangled, forming a strong thread.

Here is what linen fibers look like when they have been prepared for spinning. They have been brushed to all face the same direction, but not twisted together.

If you hold your hands about ten inches apart on the roving and pull, the arrangement easily falls apart with little effort:

This is because the individual fibers are less than ten inches long, and easily slide by each other when not twisted. A “rope” made of this kind of roving would be useless to tie anything. However, if you take a bit of the fiber and twist it with your fingers, the resulting string can take quite a bit of tension.

This is a hand spindle, one of the most ancient tools used for making useful threads. The spindle hangs from the newly-formed yarn and spins, adding twist to the thread being formed. At the same moment, the spinner adds new fibers to the forming thread.

There is a dramatic moment in spinning, when one is familiar with the slippery nature of the roving and can’t quite intuit how the twist will affect things, when you entrust the weight of your spindle to the nascent yarn. If the yarn is not spun tightly enough throughout its length, it may break, as illustrated above, and the spindle will fall. If the yarn is spun properly, though, the spindle will spin suspended on the thread, strengthening it as it is lengthened. Spinning wheels and industrial spinning machines operate on the same principle: adding fiber and twist at the same time to lengthen the existing thread.

Twisting fibers to increase strength is a simple principle that arises from complexity. Here Yuan Gao explains how the principle applies not only to fibers for cloth, but to metal wires and cables:

In general, for both ductile metal wires and non-ductile stranded cable (like rope), the twisted cables makes the strands more fault-tolerant than the same number of strands held separated from each other.  It reduces the chance of cascade failure – where before, each strand could fail at a weak point somewhere along its length and no longer contribute its strength at all, in twisted cable, a strand that is broken is still able to contribute its strength elsewhere along the cable.  This means a break in a strand is only a localized weakness, rather than weakening along the whole length of cable.

(Emphasis mine)

Each bit of broken wire in the above example is like a fiber in the normal case of spinning: much shorter than the whole length of the thread, but contributing its own strength to the strength of the whole, through the magic of microscopic frictions.

With this deeper picture of the source domain in mind, we can return to the target domain: the development and elaboration of words. For “zoom,” the initial finger-spun piece of thread (as you would make to start spinning) is a sound effect of speed. (When I call it a sound effect, I mean that it is something John Dewey, in Art as Experience, would recognize as “media” useful for the expression of sense and emotion.) Upon this beginning, the fiber of aviation and photography are added, and of film, all contributing sense and strength to the growing “zoom” picture. The new use (zooming in and out on smartphone screens) binds together the old uses and extends them. There is one thing common to all of them – they all contribute to the strength of the concept – but it is not an essence, but the process of word formation itself, the “continuous overlapping of [the] fibres,” as Wittgenstein says.

Spinning takes a bit of skill and knack (though not too much skill, since almost everybody used to do it). At its heart, spinning is using the fingers to balance fiber-adding and twist: adding the right amount of fibers and twisting it the right amount, so that the thread neither breaks, nor gets too thick or thin. Twist is very powerful, and its organizing force will operate on the entire roving unless it is carefully confined to just a small number of fibers at the edge of spinning. This common but skillful balancing act, and not something haphazard or random, is the source domain Wittgenstein chooses for the process by which words get meaning. The final picture is one in which all the meanings support each other, in which new meanings support old and vice versa, even though no one meaning is ubiquitous or universal. Words and concepts, like threads, grow through the application of skillful processes, rather than remaining the same.

I expect a lot from words. Often I am disappointed. There is a rhythm to the swell of interest when encountering some new domain, and the deflation of enthusiasm as it is revealed as empty of some kind of hoped-for meaning. All those interesting things – treasure hunting, zooming, dares, money, art, emotion – no matter how scrupulously vivisected, yield no lasting simplifications, but reveal colossal squirming messes where clarity should have been. (Here I think of Melville’s Pip in Moby Dick, and the vision of the coral insects that drives him mad.)

Wittgenstein’s metaphor doesn’t provide a lasting simplification. Yet I find it therapeutic, and I pass it along, spun up a bit. It’s fine to say “there’s no one final meaning or essence to anything” – but that leaves the mind nothing to cling to, stranded in empty space. The spinning metaphor gives the mind purchase: a grounded view of the surrounding landscape of meaning, grounded in a process both creative and concrete.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. This is at once off topic but also maybe on topic…
    I have never seen the word ‘roving’ as you use it above. But it reminds me of a term that sailors use to describe block and tackle: rove to advantage (or disadvantage). ‘Rove’ in this case is the past tense of a (not commonly used) noun: to reeve. Which is essentially to feed a line though a block, or possibly other opening. So configurations of block and tackle are described as how they have been reeved (rove!).
    My brief internet search couldn’t give me an etymological link between a roving of fiber and to reeve line … but maybe they are part of the same thread.
    Great post by the way.

  2. Romeo Stevens says

    Related to epistemic structural realism and extensionalism.

  3. A thread is a semilattice??

  4. I loved the essential flaws woven in. Perfect.