Etymology Usage

Is an iTunes download a record?

Q: We of a certain age consider “records” synonymous with the vinyl discs we grew up with, and are reluctant to use the term for MP3 or iTunes downloads. But I wonder if the wax cylinders that preceded vinyl were also called “records”?

A: You’re right. Those early wax cylinders developed by Thomas A. Edison in the 1870s and ’80s were indeed called “records,” as of course were the vinyl discs that succeeded them.

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “record” in the musical sense broadly as “a piece or collection of music issued on record, cassette, CD, etc.”

We imagine that “etc.” would include an iTunes download from Apple and an MP3 download from Amazon, as well as whatever recording technology succeeds them.

The OED‘s earliest published references for “record” in the sense of a recording of speech or music date from  the late 1870s.

The first one, from the Jan. 19, 1878, issue of the journal Design and Work, is a bit technical, but here’s the next, from the June 1878 issue of Cassell’s Family Magazine:

“Mr. Edison is now engaged in devising a finished instrument capable of storing up speeches and music of all kinds, and of allowing the records to be sent by post.”

When the noun “record” showed up in English in the early 1300s (via Anglo-Norman and Middle French), it referred to “the documentation or recording of facts, events, etc.”

So even in the beginning, according to that OED definition, the term “record” was used broadly. And when it comes to recordings, we’re pretty broadminded too.

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