August 13, 2019 ☼ Word of the Day

Thread or cloth made of flax.

I have a bone to pick with the eighth track on Jimmy Buffett’s 1999 record, Beach House On The Moon. The offending song is called “Math Suks” (sic). These are its opening lines:

If necessity is the mother of invention
Then I’d like to kill the guy who invented this
The numbers come together in some kind of a third dimension
A regular algebraic bliss.

Jimmy Buffett, Math Suks

Math doesn’t “suk” nor does it suck. When and how did it become OK to throw an entire branch of logic under the bus? Probably high school.

High school is where math moves from science to science fiction—and even fantasy. It’s where we first encounter Transcendental Numbers radiating their infinity of digits into the cosmos. It’s a temple to ponder the ratios of Right-angled Triangles. It’s where you’ll confront Imaginary Numbers; a psychedelic answer to a nonsensical question. You might even meet Euler’s Identity and for the briefest moment acknowledge the existence of God.

But in the 11th grade, I was mesmerized by a seemingly mundane mathematical concept. The line.

The line is a two-dimensional model of zero width and infinite length. Properly speaking, we mortals have never seen a line. When you use a pencil to mark the distance from point A to point B you have produced a line segment.

I didn’t smoke drugs in high school (and I still don’t, mom), but the idea of the line changed me forever.

A true line stretches out forever in two directions. From here to infinity and from negative infinity to here. It’s a double-bladed light-saber where the beams never end. You may only exist at the center of a line, even if you walked along it for a billion, billion years.

The line resembles another abstract concept: Time. Time moves endlessly in two directions without bending or swaying as far as we can tell. From every vantage point in history, there is a sea of time ahead of and behind you. It is an infinite scroll that you’re only ever halfway through.

The word line comes from linen, the oldest textile. It’s woven from the spun fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum.

The earliest written documentation of a linen industry comes from the Linear B tablets of Pylos, Greece, where linen is depicted as an ideogram and also written as “li-no”, and the female linen workers are cataloged as “li-ne-ya”.


Fiber is any natural or synthetic substance that is longer than it is wide. Humans derive different kinds of fibers from animals (silk, wool, angora), vegetables (cotton, hemp, jute), and even minerals (OK, just asbestos). We can also spin fiber out of whole cloth, so to speak. Synthetic fiber is the result of turning materials like petroleum or coal into something you can weave.

The oldest of the natural vegetable fibers is flax. Flax grows all over the Mediterranean and Central Asia in tall reeds. To extract the fiber, you soak the plants in a process called retting. The hard bark rots away and leaves soft fibers underneath. You then take these fibers and spin them.

Flax fiber is soft, lustrous, and flexible; bundles of fiber have the appearance of blonde hair, hence the description “flaxen” hair.

Science Direct

Archeologists know that humans have been at this for a long time. In the caves of Georgia (country not state), scientists examined pollen samples to see what kind of plants might have been around many years ago. They discovered pollen chambers containing twisted fibers of flax dating back 30,000 years. Some fibers were even colored with vegetable dye! There is no evidence that humans from this time period wore clothing, so they probably used the fibers for rope or baskets. In that sense, fiber was one of the earliest technologies. It helped early humans transport food.

Weaving (where you create fabric from fiber) wasn’t invented until later. In the ancient city states of Babylon and Ur, there was linen fabric but it only accounted for 10% of production. The problem with flax is that it leaches nutrients as it grows, leaving the soil unusable for a few years after harvest. And the actual process of linen-making is time-consuming and laborious. Only the rich could afford it.

Story of the Ancient Nations, 1912
Internet Archive Book Images

In Egypt the Nile River Valley provided a much more agreeable ecology in which to grow flax. Annual Nile floods replenished the soil making it easier to continuously grow the crop.

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with linen. They used the rough stuff for sails and used the quality stuff for tunics. Because linen is hard to dye, it was mostly worn au naturel. It became the top non-edible crop in Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians were also obsessed with death. For them, death was not the end of life, but the continuation of life into a new phase. (Not a line segment, but a line.) They spent a lot of time preparing humans for the afterlife. Before burial they would remove all the organs in the body (except the heart), rinse them with natron, and wrap them carefully in linen bandages.

Because of its cooling properties, linen is the perfect fabric for places like Egypt and North Africa. In colder Europe, not so much. So linen tunics worn underneath clothing started to catch on. Thus, the favorite textile of dead Egyptian royalty became the skivvies of Medieval Europe. This is how we get the words lingerie and lining: the linen-based clothing worn under clothing.

Lingerie, via French, originally denotes underwear made of linen.

A plumb line is a piece of lead (in Latin: plumbus) attached to a length of linen string. This tool is used to determine vertical reference lines in building construction and carpentry. Though the Egyptians had this technology, we owe the name, and the word “line” itself, to the Romans.

Roman Bronze Surveyor’s Compass and Plumb Bob

Linen enabled the straight line. A prehistoric, environmentally-destructive reed was the basis for geometry that blew my mind in 11th grade.

The earliest sense in Middle English was “cord used by builders for taking measurements;” extended late 14c. to “a thread-like mark” […] also “track, course, direction.” Meaning “limit, boundary” (of a county, etc.) is from 1590s. The mathematical sense of “length without breadth” is from 1550s. Etymonline

Many lines connect ancient Georgia, Egypt, and Rome to our modern world. Not just genetic lineage but technology too. 30,000 years ago, the killer app was flaxen rope to carry precious berries. Today’s transformative fiber is made of glass and carries precious data across the darkest part of our oceans. Flax fiber helped the Egyptians erect perfect angles and equipped their pharaohs for the afterlife. Fiber optics is the crystal clear rope that keeps us “on line,” equipping us for an infinite scroll that you’re only ever halfway through.

And lines do one more thing besides stretch into oblivion both ways. The “length without breadth” always divides in two. A true line brings forth two worlds divided by a fence. One you may step over, but not around. That’s how a line is like a circle too.