Dear Word Detective: How did the musical instrument called the “recorder” get its name and what is the connection, if any, to the other type of recorder, such as the tape recorder? My Webster’s defines the recorder as a flute with eight finger holes and a whistlelike mouthpiece. It also lists the root for “record” as coming from the Latin “recordari,” meaning to remember. It further states that the meaning remember comes from Latin words for “again” and “heart.” I don’t see the description of the “recorder” instrument in those sources. What is the real story? — Martin Celusnak.
That’s a good question, and it’s one that I recall wondering about myself as a child. The recorder is, as you say, a simple flute with eight finger holes and an idiot-proof mouthpiece. Recorders were popular in the Middle Ages, often invoked by composers to suggest a pastoral mood, but were eclipsed by “real” flutes, the clarinet and the oboe during the 18th century. The recorder made a comeback in the 20th century, in part because it’s easy to play and thus a good first instrument for children.
Lurking within the word “recorder” is our familiar verb “to record,” which is a neat story in itself. As you found, “record” comes from the Latin “recordari,” a combination of “re” (again) and “cor,” meaning “heart” (also the source of “coronary,” “concord” and “courage”). The meaning of “recordari,” and the original meaning of “to record” when it first appeared in English in the 13th century, was “to go over in the mind, commit to memory,” employing the old metaphorical sense of “heart” to mean “mind.” We still use this sense when we say we have learned a song or poem “by heart,” i.e., thoroughly. The modern sense of “record” meaning “put down in writing” or “keep an account of something” didn’t appear until the 14th century. All our modern uses of “to record” are based on this more recent “write an account” sense of the word, as are the various “recorders” (tape, video, etc.) that keep a record of events.
But before “to record” meant “to write it down,” it developed a specialized sense of the “commit to memory” meaning, that of “to practice a tune or song” (until it was learned “by heart”). The simple “recorder” flute is so-called because, when it appeared in the 14th century, it was considered a good, simple instrument for students to use when they were learning and practicing (“recording”) a piece of music. Interestingly this sense of “record” meaning “practice” has long been obsolete in connection with humans, but is still used among ornithologists for young birds practicing the calls of their species (“The young males [birds] continue practising, or, as the bird-catchers say, recording, for ten or eleven months,” Charles Darwin, 1871).