In the NYT on the 29th, an op-ed piece “A Crescendo of Errors” by Miles Hoffman (the violist of the American Chamber Players and a music commentator for Morning Edition on NPR), which begins with a cry of pain over a usage:

Fitzgerald did it. Can you believe that? And in “Gatsby,” no less. It sent me reeling. The historian James M. McPherson did it in “Battle Cry of Freedom.” Twice. George F. Will, William Safire and countless other prominent journalists have done it, as have Southern writers, Northern writers, writers of science and of science fiction, novices and old pros.

All these people, and so many others — oh my goodness, so very many others — have “reached,” or have described events or emotions “reaching,” crescendos.

… But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

… The one thing crescendo does not mean, … and never has meant, is “climax.”

Barbara Partee has responded to Hoffman’s piece on Language Log, in a piece entitled “Reaching a crescendo?”.  Here I’ll be repeating some of Barbara’s points and some of the discussion in comments on it, trying to bring out several points that tie to themes in my postings.

Why do people say reach a crescendo? What Hoffman says, waspishly:

All these people … have “reached,” or have described events or emotions “reaching,” crescendos. And they not only thought it was O.K. to reach crescendos — they thought, in reaching them, that they were being particularly clever; that they were hitching up their skirts to show flashes of musical knowledge. [For the record, I find this gluteal knowledge-flashing image repellent.]

In talking about a usage, you should always be cautious about ascribing motives — especially unflattering ones — to the people who use it. In the case at hand, I very much doubt that the crescendo-reaching folks are trying to show off their musical knowledge. I know a lot of these people, and I can tell you that most of them are using the expression because they think it’s just an idiom of ordinary English, one that happens to involve a word that’s also a technical term in music.

Why use crescendo, rather than the shorter, less technical-sounding climax? This is speculative, but I suspect that many people are uncomfortable with climax because of its common use to refer to orgasm (more on this below); it’s certainly true that I have made some people a bit uncomfortable when I use climax in a non-sexual way, referring to the culminating point of a narrative, or indeed of a piece of music.

The sense development. I’ll start with a brisk run-through of the history, beginning with the word’s etymology, from OED2:

< Italian crescendo increasing, present participle of crescere to increase < Latin crēscĕre (compare crescent n.)

(The etymology is important because Hoffman appears to believe in a variant of the Etymological Fallacy — or the principle that Etymology is Destiny — which takes the etymological source of an expression to be its One True Meaning. This is a deeply silly idea, which I, and other linguabloggers, have railed against repeatedly. But what Hoffman seems to subscribe to is a specialized variant that deserves discussion on its own; more t,o come below.)

The Italian adjective crescendo simply meant ‘increasing, growing’, and continues to have this meaning in modern Italian. But it developed use as a technical term in music, and that’s where the history of crescendo in English begins, with the borrowing of that technical term. Then the sequence:

a. A musical direction indicating that the tone is to be gradually increased in force or loudness (abbrev. cres., cresc.). As n.: A gradual increase of volume of tone in a passage of a piece of music; a passage of this description. [first cite 1776]

b. transf. A gradual increase in loudness of voice. [first cite 1865]

c. fig. A progressive increase in force or effect. [first cite 1785]

[d. is irrelevant here.]

e. colloq. (orig. U.S.). The peak of an increase in volume, force, or intensity; a climax. Esp. in phr. to reach a crescendo. [cites from Fitzgerald 1925 on]

The first crucial step is the development from sense a to sense c:  in sense b, we get an ordinary-language sense, with a extension of the word from loudness in music to loudness in general, and then in sense c, a metaphorical extension from loudness to force or effect in other domains. The second crucial step is the move from reference to a process, or a sequence of steps in time, to reference to the culminating point of that process or sequence — a natural sense-extension that has occurred for other words, one of which I will take up shortly.

The spread of technical terms to new contexts. The important point here is that English crescendo was no longer used exclusively in musical contexts within 100 years of its appearance in the language. Hoffman, however, seems to want to maintain that What Starts in Music, Stays in Music — or more generally, that technical terms in some domain cannot develop ordinary-language uses outside of that domain.

But that happens all the time. Technical vocabulary is a constant rich source of (often colorful) ordinary language. At first, people within the technical domain in question (for whom the technical terms have special value) will object to these new uses as misuses, but eventually the new uses will become so detached from the technical uses that ordinary speakers will barely connect them. So it went with quantum leap. And so, I maintain, it went for crescendo. And, in fact, for climax (still to come).

[Note: The OED2 entry, from some time ago, marks crescendo ‘climax’ as colloquial (and originally U.S.), but it provides no usage warning. The more recent NOAD2 has two subsenses for crescendo referring to a culmination, in an entry without any label for either of these:

Music    a gradual increase in loudness in a piece of music.
• Music    a passage of music marked to be performed in this way.
• the loudest point reached in a gradually increasing sound: Deborah’s voice was rising to a crescendo.
• a progressive increase in force or intensity: a crescendo of misery.
• the most intense point reached in this; a climax: the negative reviews reached a crescendo in mid-February.]

In any case, Hoffman would be justified in complaining if people talking about the structure of music used crescendo ‘climax’, but I don’t see that happening.

A comparison. Linguists, I maintain, are justified in complaining when people talking about grammar use passive voice for other things, but I’m on record as having no beef when people talking about writing style refer to a passive style, and no one can object to things like passive resistance, the passive partner in certain sex acts, and the like.

From process to culmination: the case of climax. From OED2 on the English noun climax:

< Latin clīmax, < Greek κλῖμαξ ladder, (in Rhetoric) climax. The two uses 3 and 4 are due to popular ignorance and misuse of the learned word…

1. Rhetoric. A figure in which a number of propositions or ideas are set forth so as to form a series in which each rises above the preceding in force or effectiveness of expression; gradation. [first cite 1589]
3. The last or highest term of a rhetorical climax. [first cite 1856]
4. a. gen. The highest point of anything reached by gradual ascent; the culmination, height, acme, apex. [first cite 1789]
b. [ecological sense, from 1915 on]
c. [physiological sense ‘orgasm’, from 1918 on]

So in Greek, a word meaning ‘ladder’ developed a technical sense in rhetoric, involving a progression (in time) of items leading towards a final element, which then coexists with the ‘ladder’ sense; this is analogous to the Italian development of a technical term crescendo in music, which then coexists with crescendo ‘increasing’.

The rhetorical term in Greek then moved from the process or progression to its culmination or final step — just the semantic change that happened to crescendo in English. Both these rhetorical senses were borrowed from Greek into English, and then the English word climax moved out of the sphere of rhetoric and was used in ordinary English for any sort of culmination (for ‘acme, peak, crest, apogee’).

(The ‘orgasm’ sense turns out to be surprisingly recent. Well, only about a hundred years old.)

Some more from Hoffman. Hoffman sums things up:

the next time you read a sentence like, “The battle raged, until on the third day it reached a crescendo,” you will know that the author of the sentence has, to paraphrase Fowler’s Modern English Usage, injured the language.

And if you should happen to read the sentence aloud in the company of musicians, the sound of gnashing teeth may well drown out any attempt to read further. And you will never convince any of those musicians that a word that for centuries has had one and only one precise meaning will, through repeated flagrant misuse, come to mean something else.

And why should it? You don’t have to be a musician to learn to use musical terms correctly, any more than you have to be a jet pilot to write a story about F-16s that doesn’t make jet pilots cringe. All it requires is seriousness and proper effort.

To start with, a language can’t be injured. Languages are not, in fact, organisms.

And then, well, no, crescendo has not had one and only one precise meaning for centuries. Hardly any word is like that. Technical terms develop ordinary-language counterparts. Ordinary-language words develop both extended and specialized senses.  Some of these innovations spread and become standard usage.

And about using musical terms correctly: yes, absolutely, do it, in musical contexts. Otherwise, you have to assess what factors are relevant in the context. The judgment of the lexicographers is that crescendo ‘climax’ has become acceptable in non-musical contexts. If you don’t want to use it, that’s your prerogative. But stop insulting people who do.

3 Responses to “crescendo”

  1. 'Rik Smoody Says:

    Grunt ugh urgh grunt blah.
    (I know what I meant)

  2. Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians. | Jeremy Butterfield Says:

    […] meaning over time. The sense development of crescendo is explained in detail by Arnold Zwicky here. In brief, the word both moved from meaning “an increase in musical loudness” to “an increase […]

  3. Tom Thomson Says:

    Some musicians are unbelievably dim. Others use “reach a crescendo” with “crescendo” meaning “a passage in which the volume of tone in the music increases” which I believe is a purely musical meaning and is commonly used by musicians (and has been used by them in that sense since teh 18th century, I think), and that is something which one can clearly reach – if I can play a piece of music, I must while playing it reach in turn each passage of it, and often at least one of those passages is a crescendo; presumably the dim musicians, those who claim that no crescendo can ever be reached, don’t use “crescendo” in that musical sense, but only in some other sense althogether.

    I can remember several discussions about the neccessity of ensuring that one would have enough breath left to cope when one reached a fairly slow crescendo with no points at which one could take breath (ie reached the point in the music where that crescendo began – just like reaching anything is getting to the first bit of it one gets to) – something which any decent clarionettist or singer (I used to be both, thanks to mentors who were professional musicians and talked to me about things like that) will understand quite well. And I guess that operatic tenors like Ferruccio Tagliavini learnt that too (but in Italian, not in English) and those who did would had have something to teach many more recent tenors who evidently didn’t.

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