Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

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I wonder what kind of “crescendo”. Of passion? Desire? Lust? Deceit?

5-second read

Some musicians and pedants hate the use of crescendo to mean an event, as in “to reach a crescendo”, rather than a process. Don’t worry. Use it that way if you want to. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché.


Now for the 7.5 minute read.

Can something reach a crescendo?

Not for language “purists. This usage gets right up their nose. Normal folk will probably just get on with life and use the phrase as and when required – which, if you are not a journalist, newscaster, reporter or wannabe writer, is unlikely to be very often.

Grrrr!

On Twitter recently a tweep was incensed enough by the journalistic (mis)use of the idiom to tweet this collective rebuke to Beeb hacks:  “Yet again, BBC reporters, you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is a process leading to a climax, or peak or whatever.”

That tweet concisely puts the argument deployed by purists. Repeat after me (they say): ‘“crescendo” does not mean “climax, culmination” and the like.’

A definition or two

Oh, but I’m sorry to have to break the news that it does. Where do we look if we want to know what a word “means”. Why, “the” dictionary, of course. Well, on this point dictionaries are in harmony, not to say unison (Geddit?!?!). Here’s the Collins dictionary’s first definition:

  1. music a gradual increase in loudness or the musical direction or symbol indicating this. Abbreviation: cresc. Symbol: (written over the music affected) ≺ (The image is my addition, btw)

(I added the illusration, btw; it is not in the dictionary.)

But that is followed by a further two:

  1. a gradual increase in loudness or intensity

the rising crescendo of a song

  1. a peak of noise or intensity

the cheers reached a crescendo

That last meaning shows the word association – reach – that is the major bête noire in this piece. “If a crescendo is a process”, say the naysayers, “how can it be reached?” It is true that you can reach a final state – maturity, for example, but not a process, such as “growing up”.

Crescendo goes with a few other verbs (e.g. become/hit/build to/rise to) but reach is by far the most frequent to imply an end state or an event. It is also worth noting that build to and rise to suggest process rather than state.

Just to be clear what we’re talking about, here are three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American, from the academic, magazine, and fiction components:

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles.

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664, when the English took possession of New Amsterdam (population ten thousand) and the city and colony were renamed New York.

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Crescendos be like…

Adjectives that modify crescendo include, according to the Oxford English Corpus, operatic, Rossini, orchestral, slow-building, gradual, deafening, crashing, thundering, almighty, swelling, EUPHORIC, FRENZIEDROUSING, THRILLING.

Now, you might think that the adjectives/participles to do with hearing/sounds, or emotion (underlined and capitalized respectively), point to the word being used in its strictly musical sense. However, many do not.

For example, of the 14 examples of deafening crescendo, only two are strictly musical, and even one of those is from a football report:

…the orchestra reaching its deafening crescendo before the long silence known as off-season begins.

The other examples include e.g. Her entire being ached with unimaginable pain. She could barely move, the pain rising in a deafening crescendo as she struggled to sit up.

And, similarly, when it comes to crescendos of something, while many are musical or aural, there are also several non-musical ones (in descending order of statistical significance): a crescendo of boos, guitars, noise, applause, drums, strings, sound, voices, EXCITEMENT, EMOTION, CRITICISM, violence, PROTEST, music, color, activity, attack: e.g.:

Instead, there is a rising crescendo of voices wondering what C4 [British TV Channel Four] is for, and why, precisely, it deserves any kind of public subsidy.

Due to the short growing season, spring and summer flowers bloom together in a crescendo of color in July and August.

The title track of the new album is a highlight as ‘Shake/ Shiver Moan’ slowly builds itself up into an epic crescendo of flailing guitars and pounding drums and is an impressive indicator of where they now find themselves.

This very short, one-bar crescendo only reaches mezzo forte.

Who talks about crescendos?

The Oxford English Corpus shows you the domain of discourse of a word or phrase. Of the 2,857 examples of crescendo as a noun (singular, or plural crescendos), 1,040 are in the “arts” domain, 657 in “news”, “unclassified” accounts for 257, blogs  for 233, “life and leisure” 164, sport 92, “society” 80, fiction 60.

So, what does that tell us? Hey presto! 1,040 examples, or 36 per cent-ish, are in the arts domain, so it must be musical.

Well, not really. If you look more closely, a little over 600 are in the subdomains of “popular” and “classical music”. But that’s still fewer citations than for “news.” In addition, domains such as “life and leisure”, sport, and “society” are almost entirely journalistic writing, e.g.

…Barrett brilliantly builds a nerve-stretching crescendo of suspense and dread that culminates in the 1998 car bombingNZ Listener, referring to a film.

In short, though the first person cited by the OED as using crescendo in its “climax” meaning is Scott Fitzgerald (The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. Great Gatsby, iii 68), its forte is in journalism.

A musicianly rant

A Google search for “reach a crescendo” will quickly lead you to blogs and pronouncements, including one from the New York Times – which has been doing the rounds since 2013 — titled “A crescendo of errors”. The author is a violist (no, not a typo for “violinist”, but someone who plays the viola), and so knows a thing or three about music. H e expostulates “But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

A crescendo is the process, in music, of getting louder.”

He also notes that “crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud.”

The Macdonald Stradivarius viola. At auction, offers of over $45 million were invited, but not achieved. It once belonged to the Amadeus Quartet’s violist.

He also says “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.”

He’s a musician, so, surely, his opinion must count for something. Or must it? Just as you wouldn’t ask a tone-deaf linguist to play Hindemith’s Viola Concerto, so a musician’s judgement on linguistic matters might be fatally flawed.  I respectfully submit that it is, on several different counts.


In no particular order…

  1. Just how “precise” is “the one and only one precise meaning”? If a crescendo can go from any volume to any other volume, in other words, if its end points are fluid, isn’t it a somewhat hazy concept? The only constant is that musicians play louder. In addition, it can be very short, as in the example higher up.
  2. To say that crescendo can only mean what it means to musicians is an example of the “etymological fallacy”, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that a word’s origin conveys its true meaning.

Here, though, we have the etymological fallacy with knobs on or a dose of musical snobbery thrown in. Or, to put it yet another way, the fallacy of the appeal to authority.

  1. I’ll give you one word: polysemy. A word or phrase can allowably have more than one meaning. In fact, most of the words we use most often have several. Thinking musically, we can talk about the different movements of a concerto or symphony. Does that mean we can’t apply movement elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. (Note that my reasoning here is potentially Jesuitical: the word movement already existed in English before it acquired its musical meaning. But, no matter.)
  2. Neither the gender-fluid non-binary person (formerly known as “man”) on the Clapham omnibus, nor John nor Mary Doe, nor everyday usage cares what the technical meaning of a word is in its original field of discourse. Think “acid test” (originally a test using nitric acid as a test for gold). Think of the ubiquitous “DNA” in business speak. Think of “quantum leap” for “major [allegedly] advance”. Think of your own examples, as I’m sure you will.
  3. The phrase is useful.

Actually, perhaps fatally so for journalists, as we have already seen. On the one hand, it can be seen as one of those journalistic clichéd tropes which/that attempt to be dynamic and attention-getting. On the other, in certain cases, it is hard to think of a phrase that could replace it.

Taking the examples cited earlier on…

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005…

“Culminated in”? “reached” Had its crowning moment in”? “came to a climax in”?

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664,…

“Came to a head”?

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Here, I find it hard to see what could replace it: “achieving maximum volume”? “climaxing”?

It has also been suggested that the popularity of “reach a crescendo” might owe something to euphemism:  “to reach a climax” almost inevitably invokes the sexual meaning of climax (first brought into current usage by women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes starting in 1918).

  1. Words change 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 in loudness generally” and from meaning a process to meaning the end result of that process, namely an event or state.

As it happens, climax has followed an analogous progression from process to end state, while another term, gamut, has gone from being the single lowest note in a musical scale to meaning a series of notes, and then a range of anything you care to mention (including, of course, Katharine Hepburn’s acting in the sublimely catty remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “She runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”) Both words also emigrated from technical domains.

An exquisite book cover — shades of Picasso, de Chirico, Dufy, and not sure who else.

Conclusion

Crescendo is indeed originally a musical term – like so many, from Italian (piano, adagio, allegro, etc.). It is the participle of the Italian verb crescere, to grow, itself a direct descendant of Latin crēscĕre to grow, which is the ultimate ancestor of the English word crescent.

Musically speaking, or when musicians speak about it, it is a process rather than an end state, as the following example clearly, if lengthily, illustrates (my emboldening):

“…during more than four minutes of music in which no performers are in view, the setting becomes the focus of the stage, as the moon rises over the forest. From a pianissimo beginning, more and more instruments enter in a gradual crescendo, the orchestral texture and colour becoming richer and more vibrant until the full orchestra plays,…”

From Beyond Falstaff in ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor’: Otto Nicolai’s Revolutionary ‘Wives’, John R Severn, 2015.

That musicians mean one thing and Joe Public another does not invalidate the “climax” meaning. Whether it is a cliché is a matter of opinion. That it is widely used by journalists is an evidence-based fact, as discussed earlier. (The excellent Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners specifically applies the label “journalism” to its definition 2: “People sometimes describe an increase in the intensity of something, or its most intense point, as a crescendo.”)

Moreover, the sense of a progression, as in its strictly musical application, has not been ousted by the “climax” meaning. As Oxford Online defines it:

A progressive increase in intensity.

‘a crescendo of misery’

More example sentences:

‘Although many speakers struck bland notes individually, together these became a crescendo of shared concern.’

‘They believe that if you try hard enough there’s a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands.’

Yes, but what’s the plural?

Crescendos is rather more frequent than crescendoes. That second form, in fact, is used for the verb. Crescendi confines itself to music criticism.

Valery Gergiev. Yippee! I’m looking forward to experiencing him conducting Shosta 4 at the Embra Festival.

An eggcorn too far?

As long ago as 2006 the Eggcorn Database noted crashendo as an eggcorn for crescendo, e.g. It is obvious that a lot of folks are going to join the crashendo of shouting about this fiasco – – soon. It is actually a good thing for small business.

The creation of an eggcorn based on the “event” rather than the “process” meaning surely settles the debate, ;-), doesn’t it?

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

2 thoughts on “Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

  1. Strange. when I was you musicians taught me that I could reach a crescendo and that when I got there I had to be sure I had the resources to handle it. Of course reaching the crescendo meant getting to the point in the music where the crescendo began, not to its end.

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  2. A very interesting point. But do you think that’s the meaning of “reach” that most people use? I don’t.

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