Reaching a crescendo, or not

Mahler 2 crescendo

Mahler 2: crescendo leading to the shattering climax of the first movement!

I get blank looks whenever I explode at the phrase

reaching a crescendo.

It’s long been a bête-noire of mine—a recurring peeve that I now find I share with many others. But we dissenters are powerless to influence usage; and it’s a far more thorny issue than it may seem.

There’s much online discussion—notably this, from 2013, on the fine languagelog site (filed inter alia under the fine tag “Prescriptivist poppycock”). [1] If you’ve got better things to do than read all the way through the thread there, then I guess you won’t be reading this either—but here are some points that strike me.

The debate revolves around linguistic change. In the Real World, etymology is neither here nor there. I’m both amused and disgruntled by the similar trajectories of the words climax and gamut—and indeed latte (“I ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy at a coffee bar, and got milk”).

For what it’s worth (not a lot, here),

gamut originally referred to the lowest note of Guido d’Arezzo’s hexachord system, a contraction of “gamma ut’” It gradually came to signify the whole system, similar to “alphabet” [Ha, there’s another one!]. I have never heard it used in reference to a note on a keyboard instrument, and I am unaware of any such instrument that has gamma ut (low G) as the lowest note.

Early culprits include F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925):

The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo

and P.G. Wodehouse (1939):

The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.

For more citations, see Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Robert Coren cites an early instances of the fightback as a book by Leonard Bernstein c1959, presumably The joy of music—I’d love to have a source for this.

Daniel Trambaiolo asks,

By what criteria, corpus-based or otherwise, do contemporary linguists distinguish between awkward metaphorical usages based on a misunderstanding of the relevant literal meaning, and usages that have lost their metaphorical character so far that the original literal meaning is no longer relevant. It seems clear that “climax” has successfully made the transition, and that many people here believe “crescendo” has done the same. At what point does it become unreasonable to deny that we are no longer in a grey zone?

Later he comments:

We all constantly use words whose meanings have changed over the years […] Maybe we’re aware of those earlier meanings—it certainly widens the world for me to know how the language has changed over time. Or maybe we’re as ignorant as those poor musical illiterates you’re shaking your head over. (But we’re all ignorant to some degree, aren’t we? I don’t know the original meaning of every word I use. Do you? Maybe some linguists do.) But for most purposes, most of the time, it’s simply not important what a word used to mean, or what it still means for the small group that used to have sole possession of it. And it’s not important whether the people who use “crescendo” to mean “climax” don’t know the musical meaning. As it happens, I’m quite aware what a musical crescendo is. But that’s not going to stop me from using it to mean “climax” if I damn well feel like it.

John:

Just because “languages change” and peeving won’t stop that happening doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically bad to be annoyed by things you consider to be wrong.

Vidor:

Really, are there any rules that should be defended? Any usages? Any spellings? If languages change, and purists shouldn’t peeve, why do we have English grammar classes?

Rose offers a further angle:

Not only is “reached a crescendo” an unfortunate misuse of a word (a word with a clear meaning, easy enough to discover), it’s a cliché, and a tired one at that. (And because it’s become a cliché its use should be accepted? )

The comments also feature some excursions into the declining popularity of “classical music”.

Finally, Yakusa Cobb:

I have followed this thread for some time. As it now appears to be reaching a diminuendo, I shall quit.

It’s a veritable smorgasbord of opinions.

OK, I get it: “reaching a crescendo” isn’t “wrong”. I’m all for descriptive rather than prescriptive usage, but I can’t help myself.

Anyway, the Transferring Offerings ritual in Yanggao does not reach a crescendo with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (my film, from 1.07.53). OK?

 

[1] Some articles cited there: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/11/magazine/on-language-reach-crescendo.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/opinion/a-crescendo-of-errors.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/opinion/a-dissonant-crescendo.html. See also https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/can-you-say-reach-a-crescendo-yes-you-can-its-not-a-specialist-term/

 

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