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A stylus (plural: styli or styluses) is a writing utensil, or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example in pottery. It can also be a computer accessory that is used to assist in navigating or providing more precision when using touchscreens. It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styli are heavily curved to be held more easily. Another widely used writing tool is the stylus used by blind users in conjunction with the slate for punching out the dots in Braille.
Styli were first used by the ancient Mesopotamians in order to write in cuneiform. Egyptians (Middle Kingdom) and the Minoans of Crete (Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphic) made styli in various materials: reeds that grew on the sides of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in marshes and down to Egypt where the Egyptians used styli from sliced reeds with sharp points; bone and metal styli were also used. Cuneiform was entirely based on the "wedge-shaped" mark that the end of a cut reed made when pushed into a clay tablet, hence the name "cuneiform" from Latin cuneus = "wedge". The linear writings of Crete in the first half of the second millennium BC were made on sun dried clay tablets that were left to dry in order to become 'leather' hard before they were incised by the stylus. The linear nature of the writing was also dictated by the use of the stylus.
In Western-Europe styli were widely used until the late Middle Ages. For learning purposes the stylus was gradually replaced by a writing slate. From the mid-14th century improved water-powered paper mills produced large and cheap quantities of paper and the wax tablet and stylus disappeared completely from daily life.
The word "stylus" (along with the word "style") comes from the Latin word stilus meaning: "a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans, for writing upon wax tablets," which derives from the Greek word στύλος meaning "pillar" and "stile for writing on waxed tablets." A different suggestion is that the word does not derive from the Greek word "στῦλος", but that it has a common root with the Greek verb "στίζω" (meaning "mark"). According to the 1875 London Dictionary of Greek & Roman Antiquities a Stylus is "an object tapering like an architectural column; a metal instrument resembling a pencil in size and shape, used for writing or recording impressions upon waxed tablets. It signifies:
"An iron instrument (Ov. Met. IX.521; Martial, XIV.21), resembling a pencil in size and shape, used for writing upon waxed tablets (Plaut. Bacch. IV.4.63; Plin. H.N. XXXIV.14). At one end it was sharpened to a point for scratching the characters upon the wax (Quintil. i.1 §27), while the other end being flat and circular served to render the surface of the tablets smooth again, and so to obliterate what had been written. Thus, vertere stilum means to erase, and hence to correct, as in the well-known precept saepe stilum vertas (Hor. Sat. 1.10.72; Cic. Verr. II.41)."
There exists minor controversy about the correct pluralization of "stylus". The form "styli" or even "stylii" has become acceptable, even among major American manufacturers of styli and online dictionaries, based on the assertion that it is a direct loanword from Latin. However, "stylus" is in fact an English word based on the Latin word "stilus", and is more appropriately pluralized in English as "styli." Use of "stylii" is considered incorrect, as it would be based on the nonexistent Latin word "stylius".
Use in arts
Styli are still used in various arts and crafts. Example situations: rubbing off dry transfer letters, tracing designs onto a new surface with carbon paper, and hand embossing. Styli are also used to engrave into materials like metal or clay.
Styli are used to make dots as found in folk art and Mexican pottery artifacts. Oaxaca dot art is created using styli.
Use in music recording and reproduction
Several technologies were used to record the sounds, beginning with wax cylinders, almost half a century before the invention of the magnetic cartridge. The harder the material used, the harder the stylus has to be. For shellac records, a disposable stylus softer than the record was generally preferred for preservation of the recording. The styli for playing vinyl records are made out of Sapphire or diamond.
Smartphones and computing
Modern day devices, such as touchscreen phones, can often be used with a stylus to accurately navigate through menus, send messages etc. As before, the stylus is pointed at one end and is made to fit in the grip of a hand comfortably. These styli can be found in all different styles. For example many new phones like the Nokia 5800 and LG (C) Cookie have a built in stylus which tucks in behind the back cover. Some styli may extend and contract into small, pen-like cylinders, which are easy to put away.
Today, the term stylus often refers to an input tool usually used with PDAs, graphics tablets, Tablet PCs, and UMPCs. In this method, the user operates a touchscreen with a stylus, rather than using a finger, which avoids getting the natural oil from one's hands on the screen. It also improves the precision of the touch input, allowing use of smaller user interface elements. Styli may be used for handwriting or drawing on the touch-sensitive surface (e.g. the Nintendo DS).
Styli are also found in use with commercial devices, particularly for electronically retrieving signatures.
Stylus may also refer to the instrument used to scribe a recording into smoked foil or glass. In various scientific instruments this method may be used instead of a pen for recording as it has the advantage of being able to operate over a wide temperature range, does not clog or dry prematurely, and has very small friction in comparison to other methods. These characteristics were useful in certain types of early seismographs and in recording barographs that were once used to verify sailplane records. The styli used in scanning tunneling microscopes have only a single atom at the tip; these are effectively the sharpest styli possible.
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- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2009, Houghton Mifflin Company
- "What is Braille?" (web). American Foundation for the Blind. Retrieved 2008-04-02.
- ND.edu, University of Notre Dame online latin dictionary
- Tufts.edu, στύλος at Liddell & Scott