In the beginning was the word, now there is [the] text. The meanings of this widely used and problematic term follow a media transformation that has taken place over the past century, from script through print to communication by words-on-screen. As scripture (written language with the authority of God), text canonized the fixity of writing over the ephemerality of oral tradition. From the 1300s into the later C20, in consequence, text served special functions and had great significance in the discourses of religion and education, where it conveyed authority as well as narrowness (the latter embodied in a doctrine of literalism). Around 1970, however, text left the pulpit and schoolroom and bloomed with new vigor in fields including linguistics, cultural studies, and digital information processing. Within the new, interdisciplinary field of textual studies in particular, text dramatically changed its valence and connotative weight. It accrued still greater authority while becoming a principle of production rather than of fixity after production. In current usage, text is a digital commodity: the stuff of innumerable everyday transactions. It is also exactly what doesn’t last, except in the ether of the Internet, where clustered words float like debris from exploded planets.
The most significant of the related but distinct meanings that make up the term’s history are all first cited in the OED from lC14, supported by quotations largely from Chaucer and Langland. The etymology of the term is French from Latin, from the root “to weave.” This etymology continues to shape phrasings such as the “thread of an argument,” or the act of “spinning a tale.” But the root sense, which was revivified in some later C20 usages, is not especially apparent in the earlier history.
The primary sense in the OED, cited from Gawain and the Green Knight, is that of “The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.” Related citations (from C16–C18) show key accompanying terms: Plato’s followers offer “all kind of violence to his Text” (1678); Swift asks Stella to keep “strictly to the Text” (1728); and Luther understands Scripture “barely and symply after the texte of the letter” (1560).
Close to this primary meaning is a related sense: “The very words and sentences as originally written,” either “in the original language, as opposed to a translation or rendering” or “in the original form and order, as distinguished from a commentary, marginal or other, or from annotations. Hence, in later use, the body of any treatise, the authoritative or formal part as distinguished from notes, appendices, introduction, and other explanatory or supplementary matter.” Further specialization, clearly implicit in the earlier citations, leads to the meaning: “The very words and sentences of Holy Scripture; hence, the Scriptures themselves; also, any single book of the Scriptures.” This sense, now obsolete, is evidenced from Langland’s C14 work Piers Plowman (1393): “Ich theologie þe tixt knowe.” It is this sense which captures the wording in a sermon by John Donne (1620), dear to literary critic Frank Kermode: “It is the Text that saves us; the interlineary glosses, and the marginal notes, and the variae lectiones, controversies and perplexities, undo us.”
From Scripture as a whole, a narrowing development in text moves from whole to part: “A short passage from the Scriptures, esp. one quoted as authoritative, or illustrative of a point of belief or doctrine, as a motto, to point a moral, or esp. as the subject of an exposition or sermon.” The next step in the word’s developing meanings, analytically, then involves not narrowing but extension, from the Bible to other valued writings, indicating: “A short passage from some book or writer considered as authoritative; a received maxim or axiom; a proverb; an adage.” This wider meaning is illustrated in the OED from Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale, 1386: “But for I am a man not textueel I wol noght telle of textes neuer a deel.” This enlarged sense of text as authority, extended from Scripture, provides the basis for such crucial, familiar usages as text-book, dating from later C18.
From such notable Renaissance projects as Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament onward, for centuries scholarly editing played an important role in consolidating the word text. In the OED account, however, it is only in eC19—in the wake of such endeavors as Wolf ’s Homer and the Higher Criticism of the Bible, as well as documentary Historicism with its emphasis on Quellenkritik (source criticism)—that we find the first citation for a prominent, modern sense of text: “The wording adopted by an editor as (in his opinion) most nearly representing the author’s original work; a book or edition containing this; also, with qualification, any form in which a writing exists or is current, as a good text, bad text, corrupt text, critical text, received text.” Terms related to this new meaning, including text-critic/critical/criticism, are all attested only from eC20.
By mC20, the linguistic collocation text-frequency had appeared in descriptions of statistical analysis of the wording of texts; and as early as c1970 text-processing is cited as a task for computers. The field of text linguistics (from German) expanded the self-understanding of linguistics from its earlier, primary concern with the level of the sentence to discourse, but with the complication for disciplinary self-understanding that linguistics had until then been fundamentally about speech, not writing. That complication concerning the proper object of linguistics has had the apparently odd effect that, in order to constitute its object, text linguistics requires textualization—a word widely recognized but which is not in the OED or SpellCheck.
A 2009 draft addition to the OED expands the notion of text further, beyond language: “A non-textual subject regarded as open to analysis or interpretation using methods of literary criticism, semiotics, etc.” Cross-reference highlights a transferred, figurative sense at work in this extension, requiring an enlarged meaning of the phrase to read, quite remarkably extended beyond textuality to the non-textual and yet evidenced from lC14 in Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale, l. 107: “In hir lyuyng maydens myghten rede As in a book euery good word or dede That longeth to a mayden vertuous.” This strand of the OED account suggests that the apparently modern cultural studies sense of text may have been already latent contemporaneous with other uses of text referred to earlier, in some form of coexistence between more secular and religious usage.
The term cultural text is cited in OED from 1970 (Icons of Popular Culture); and in 1972 Clifford Geertz asserted in his influential close reading of a Balinese cockfight that “cultural forms can be treated as texts, as imaginative works built out of social materials.” In the OED citations, this is the first collocation of imaginative with text, as Geertz’s cultural anthropology finally brought together Romantic literary theory with Romantic historicism. Also in the 1970s, Roland Barthes (in an influential essay “From Work to Text”) put forward a series of theses that made text the living, generative counter-term to the dead-letter of the “work” [oeuvre, from L opus]. Negative associations accrued by text over its history, as literal, restrictive, petrified monument, were transferred to work, and text took on all the plus-values. This revaluation was joined by Jacques Derrida, whose statement “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (1967) led to versions of textualism and textualist quite different from those cited in the OED, which refer only to Biblical Scripture. The OED does, however, cite Gayatri Spivak’s introduction to her translation of Derrida, which uses the term textuality in this new meaning. In a more traditional framework, one thing outside or beyond the text might be context, which historians especially seek to set up in opposition to text without appreciating that context is not a contrast term but an amplification of text, as was argued throughout the literary critical debates of mC20.
Alongside these more technical debates in text-based or textual studies, the usage most common in contemporary culture, especially through the related verb to text, is likely to rise and wane in tandem with the (SMS) generation of technology to which it relates. Interestingly, in this meaning text proves to have had a longer recent prehistory than is generally realized: the term is attested from 1977 in relation to a technology not associated with mobile phones: ARPA, the predecessor of the Internet.