It used to be that tuning your car wasn’t something glamorous – it was something mandatory that had to be done at ~100,000 miles to keep your engine in proper working order. Not anymore. Our automobiles, much like our homes, our clothes, and our phones, are an expression of who we are – and who wants to be like everyone else? Whether we are talking about the minimalist flower vase in a VW Beetle, WiFi hotspots, getting every single bit of horsepower and torque from the car itself, or adding some all-too-necessary bling to your ride, aftermarket automotive enhancement, aka tuning, has truly taken on a life of its own. Still, while we all know what tuning is (in the modern sense) and what it looks like, it’s worth looking at how the word got, well, to use a popular tuning phrase, tricked out.
Being the verbal noun of tune, which is itself an unexplained variant of the word tone, tuning is essentially the act of putting something in tune. Given that the word is a form of tune and a relative of tone, it’s no surprise that the first usages of the term are related to music: the first known use of the term, referring to a musical instrument, comes from Sir James David Marwick’s Records of the City and Royal Burgh of Edinburgh, Volume 3 (1871), where he mentions in 1554-55: “Item, to Sir Johne Fietie,..for tunying of the organs at Saint Giles day,..xxiiijs.”
Beginning to become generalized, our term, within the next half century, soon began to apply to multiple musical instruments – including the human voice – playing together, as can be seen in John Dowland’s 1609 translation of Andreas Ornithoparchus’ Micrologus, where he writes that: “Music..is a knowledge of Tuning, which consists in sound and Song.”
In another half century, opening the gateway to more widespread usage, the term, in 1654, started to be used more figuratively; this can be seen in Richard Whitlock’s views on learning from Zootomia, or, Observations of the present manners of the English, stating that: “The Soul needs not more a well organized Body, to exercise it Functions with spritely Vigor,.. than that Soul, and those Organs need the Tunings of Education.”
Much like with music and playing harmoniously to produce a single work, when looking at machinery and things mechanical, the concept of differing parts performing together to produce a single function can be easily applied. Strictly in a mechanical sense, the term was first noted in The Labour Commission Glossary (1891), which, during the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, defined the term as: “Tuning, a term used in Yorkshire synonymous with the term ‘tackling’..; it means repairing, &c. a loom when it breaks down and keeping it generally in order.”
Looking specifically at automobiles/cars and living in a world of semi-slick tires, enhanced suspension systems, and turbochargers, it may come as a surprise that the first use of tuning comes from more than a century ago: on December 31, 1908, The Westminster Gazette (London) speaks to anyone desiring more from their car, seemingly mourning the fact that: “The art of tuning up a car is understood by very few amateurs, who..are satisfied with results which could be improved upon.”
Considering that MTV’s Pimp My Ride originally aired 15 years ago (feel old yet?) and the global automotive aftermarket industry in estimated to reach over EUR 635 billion by next year, hopefully The Westminster Gazette will feel vindicated.