Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:
The piano students and band members among you already know that crescendo (pronounced cre-SHEN-doh) is a musical direction indicating a gradual increase in force or loudness, a gimmick to which Rossini was particularly addicted. The verb means to increase gradually in loudness or intensity. Like many musical directions, it is from Italian, the present participle of crescere, "to increase."
So far, so good, and if that were all, we could sign off and go back to practicing our scales.
But in the twentieth century, American English began to take crescendo to mean not the gradual increase, but the peak of intensity, the climax, giving rise to the phrase reach a crescendo.
This, of course, leaves many musicians in a snit over ignorant people taking over and misapplying their vocabulary. There is an article today in The New York Times claiming the meaning as Bach and Beethoven and Mozart understood it and arguing that if you use the word otherwise you have "injured the language."
Unfortunately, it appears to be a lost battle. Merriam-Webster says, "The disputed sense is, however, increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and is in fact now substantially more common than [the original sense]."
When you are in the rehearsal hall, you had better know the original meaning, and you can be as purist there as you like. But among civilians, when you hear someone talking about "reaching a crescendo," you can wince, but that is about the only option open to you.
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John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers' work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun's night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at email@example.com.