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What is a Ligature?

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  • Written By: Brenda Scott
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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The word "ligature" comes from the Latin word ligatus, which means to bind, and refers to anything that can be used to tie up or connect something. Ligatures are found in medicine, printing, music and homicide investigations. The form and application varies depending upon the context in which it is used.

In medicine a ligature is a piece of thread or other suture that is used to tie off a physical structure, such as a blood vessel, to minimize bleeding during surgery. In the Czech Republic, a group of surgeons have used this method to treat inoperable tumors. The process involves tying off all the veins and vessels supplying blood to the tumor which effectively starves the growth, causing it to atrophy.

This method is also used at times to remove benign skin tags. A thread or similar suture material is tied tightly around the skin tag effectively cutting off the blood supply. In time the skin dries and falls off. Veterinarians and ranchers use ligature tools when castrating animals to prevent hemorrhaging.

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In printing, a ligature is a stylistic form in which two letters are tied together as if they are a single symbol, such as ll, ff, and fi. While the effect is artistic, there was a much more practical reason to employ these with movable type presses. Typesetters used separate blocks containing one letter each to spell out the document they wished to print. By combining two letters into one symbol on one block, they were able to speed up the typesetting process and save space. With the advent of computers the practical purpose for using ligatures in print was eliminated, though some computer fonts still contain this stylistic option.

Musicians are familiar with two very different kinds of ligatures. One is a wavy line which binds musical notes together in a score of music. Notes connected in this way are to be played or sung as a single phrase. The metal band which attaches the reed to the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument is also known as a ligature. Woodwinds are musical instruments such as the saxophone, clarinet or oboe, which produce sound when wind, or breath, passes over a reed placed in the mouthpiece.

For a homicide investigator, a ligature is anything, other than a person’s hands, that is used to strangle someone. Strangulation is frequently a crime of opportunity and the murder weapon is often something found close at hand, like a wire, rope, belt, cord, necktie or other piece of clothing that can be placed tightly around the victim’s neck and tied off. The majority of victims of strangulation by ligature are women.

Evidence of ligature strangulation includes a straight line wound around the neck, which is in contrast to the v-shaped mark left by a rope in a hanging. These wounds are generally brown outlined in red, and can often carry an imprint of the material used to choke the victim. Deep bruising can occur as well, especially in the area where a knot was tied.

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