Chords and cords: Everyone is wrong

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Reading Geoff Pullum's post about Harold E. Palmer's 1935 Gilbert & Sullivan adaptation, I wondered about the spelling of "vocal chords" in the passage

I wish to call attention to the tactics and the strategy
Exemplified in all the work produced by Dr. Chatterji,
To ascertain what happens at the back of people's pharynxes
And analyse the vocal chords in artificial larynxes.

The "vocal cords" are so named from the resemblance of the vocal ligaments to strings or cords, so I wondered whether the "vocal chords" spelling might be an antique eggcorn. The answer turns out to be "yes", but with a twist: cord and chord participated in a rare reciprocal swap.

The OED explains that cord meaning "a string or small rope" is "a 16th cent. refashioning" of chord n.1 from Latin chorda, Greek χορδή. On the other hand, chord meaning "agreement of musical sounds" is "[o]riginally cord, aphetic form of accord n., q.v.; the 17th cent. spelling chord arose from confusion with chord n.1" (which of course is what we now mostly spell "cord").

This all seems to have been in play before the standardization of English spelling — but unlike many similar confusions, it apparently was never fully resolved. Some residues remain, like the "chord" (or "cord") of an arc, or the "chord" of an airplane's wing.

It's interesting that this does not seem to have become a serious irritant for peevers. After all, essentially everyone is Doing It Wrong, at least from an etymological point of view: cord should be "chord" and chord should be "cord".

Of course, there are occasional complaints:

Edmund Shaftesbury, The two sexes: Their functions, purposes, and places in nature, 1870: She tells the story of courtship in various bits of reminiscence, from which we learn that old men, middle-aged men and youths actually endeavored to vibrate the tender cord (not chord) that led the way to her heart.

Flying, 1967: And in the specification box, you must have meant chord: not cord, unless he was trailing a piece of string.

Roy Copperud, American Usage (1970): The folds in the throat that produce the sound of the voice are vocal cords, not chords; also spinal cord (not chord).

But on the whole, this historic confusion seems to be tolerated without much fuss.

There's an excellent discussion (as usual) in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, under chord, cord (p. 242-3), which concludes that

… even though the chord spelling with adjectives like vocal and spinal is historically justified and considered acceptable by a number of British authorities, it is widely understood to be a misspelling in American usage. While it is not really a misspelling, we recommend that you use the commoner cord spelling.

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34 Comments »

  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:14 am

    Chord blimey!

  2. Eric TF Bat said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:27 am

    I have it on good authority (ie I vaguely remember someone telling me with a straight face years ago) that both "vocal cords" and "vocal chords" are wrong, and it really should be "vocal folds".

    I now wonder about the line in The Minstrel Boy where the foemen captured the minstrel boy and, to save his harp ever sounding in slavery, "he tore its cords asunder". Cords or chords? Sounds like that's the fixed point of this particular equation!

  3. Lazar said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:35 am

    >After all, essentially everyone is Doing It Wrong, at least from an etymological point of view: cord should be "chord" and chord should be "cord".

    This is going to bug me now, as I'm a fan of respecting classical etymologies wherever possible. I'm trying to bring back "connexion, deflexion, flexion, inflexion, reflexion" – the use of "-ction" in those words just strikes me as a pointless deviation from the source. (The "-xion" forms have an air of British conservatism to them, but I would suggest that they can also be thought of as cool and simple for use in American English.) I also try to use "artefact" rather than "artifact".

  4. Marc Leavitt said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:40 am

    This does strike a chord.

  5. Schroduck said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:53 am

    Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "guitar chord". Some of the confusion probably comes from the fact that it's often not immediately clear which meaning of "c(h)ord" a given sense is derived from. It's not immediately obvious why the distance between two points of a curve is a chord (presumably, it's because a cord stretched between those points would form that line), nor why firewood is measured in cords. It even took me a second to realise that a musical chord could have come from an unrelated source to string cord.

    @Lazar: It would be a pointless deviation from the source in Latin, but surely in modern English it makes more sense to reanalyse them as "connect + -ion". The Latin-conservative form just obscures their true meanings, and suggests connections (connexions?) to words whose meanings are not directly related these days ("reflex", "flexion").

  6. dimitri said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:27 am

    I had always assumed that the word chord for music was derived from Greek χορδή, which means guts (in the plural) and anything made from guts, especially musical strings, but also sausage. It's a good example of a perfectly reasonable, but false, etymology!

  7. RP said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    Considering that Harold Palmer was British and was using British spelling, he made no mistake, since "chord" is still considered a correct (if less common) variant in British English. One of the "number of British authorities" cited by the MWDEU turns out to be the Oxford University Press. The OED Online's brief comment "These are now commonly spelled cord" leaves the continued acceptability of the spelling "chord" open to interpretation, but the OUP website at http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/chord–2#chord–2__10 says: "The anatomical term generally uses the spelling cord (as in spinal cord and vocal cord), although chord is an acceptable variant."

  8. Ellen K. said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:50 am

    Dimitri, sounds like you had the etymology correct to a point, and your error was in making a connection between "cord" meaning string and "chord" meaning multiple notes played at the same time.

  9. Dexter said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    There is a very strong tendency these days among singers and singing teachers to say "vocal folds" rather than "cords."

  10. Jason Merchant said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    And it's worth noting that none other than Leonard Bloomfield (in his 1914 "Introduction to the study of language") consistently used "vocal chords" (the title of and throughout a section in chapter 2, pp. 24ff., for example).

  11. Adam said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    @ Eric TF Bat,

    Well, at least if you use "vocal folds", you don't have to worry about the spelling.

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    I wrote a bit about vocal c(h)ords for OUPblog here. I note, as RP does, that chord is considered acceptable in British English:

    …the vocal chords variant has long been accepted in the United Kingdom (along with other anatomical uses like spinal chord). Even in the United States, both variants can be found from early on. I did a quick check of historical databases of American periodicals and found vocal cords appearing in 1830, but vocal chords actually shows up two years earlier. It was only later on that American writers settled on vocal cords as the standard version. If we now see an uptick in the usage of vocal chords, likely under the influence of the musical sense of chord, it’s important to note that this isn’t some brand-new “corruption” but a long-standing historical form.

    And in a response to a comment from John Cowan, I wrote:

    cord and chord (in their various senses) have been influencing each other for quite a long time. And in metaphorical extensions, it often seems like multiple senses of c(h)ord are at play. (I’m reminded of Lincoln’s famous line about “the mystic chords of memory.”)

    (Also see the Eggcorn Database entry.)

  13. ShadowFox said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 9:29 am

    An unrelated dichotomy today from Grammar Girl: disc vs. disk.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    @dimitri : The ODE says that Latin 'chorda' is from Greek 'khorde': "gut, string of a musical instrument." MWUD gives a similar etymology.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    I note that the name of the subphylum consisting of animals with spinal cords is "Chordata". Or at least it was when I took high-school biology 50-odd years ago.

  16. Joe Green said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    @Lazar: I always use "artefact" and have never considered it necessary to justify that use; it's always seemed natural and preferable, for no obvious reason.

    @ShadowFox: admittedly without having read Grammar Girl, I see no dichotomy here: "disc" is BrEng, "disk" is AmEng. No? (And yes I talk, or write, of floppy discs. Rarely, these days, obviously.)

    @Robert Cohen: true enough, and yet amusingly I note (the admittedly non-chordate) Tilia cordata (Small-leaved Lime). Consistency? Not a chance.

  17. Joe Green said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    Coren, not Cohen. Sorry Robert! My, how crudely simple this blogging software is.

  18. Brett said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    @Robert Coren: Actually, it's the whole phylum—all animals that, at some point in their lifetime, have notochords (not "notocords"). The subphylum is vertebrata, but it includes some jawless fishes that do not actually have articulated vertebrae.

  19. Brian said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:28 am

    And it gets even more confusing when guitar players are talking about their power c(h)ords.

  20. Bob Coard said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:31 am

    I receive mail addressed to both.

    [(myl) Historically, there's also cordes and chordes, as well as coardes. In principle, choardes should also be there, but I haven't found it.]

  21. Ross Presser said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    The distinction seems meaningless since the ultimate origin is the same. Greek lute builders used cords/chords of animal guts for the strings in their instruments, and everything derives from that. So why do people get uptight about it?

  22. KeithB said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    I think the OP is a pun. obviously, there are no real cords in an artificial larynx, so you analyze the vocal *chords* – the vocal sounds.

  23. Eric P Smith said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    @Lazar: the central organisation of Methodism in Great Britain is called the Connexion, always thus spelt.

  24. RP said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    @ShadowFox,

    The only discussion of disc/disk I can see on Grammar Girl's website is from 2011. Is there a new one?

    @Joe Green,

    It is actually quite misleading to say that "disc" is British and "disk" American, because as far as some of the most common uses of the word are concerned, the spelling is the same in both varieties of the language.

    For a computer disk (other than optical), "disk" is much the more common spelling in the UK (as well as being the US spelling). For optical discs such as CDs and DVDs, "disc" is the preferred spelling in the US (as well as being the UK spelling).

    In medical use, at least some US authorities prefer "disc", as does UK usage.

    Of course, if you are using the word "disc" in a generic sense – a flat round object – then the spelling does indeed differ between varieties (even though Fowler quotes the OED as stating that "the earlier and better spelling is disk" – a statement that is still present in the current online edition of the dictionary).

  25. L said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

    > I'm trying to bring back "connexion, deflexion, flexion, inflexion,
    > reflexion" – the use of "-ction" in those words just strikes me as a
    > pointless deviation from the source. (The "-xion" forms have an air
    > of British conservatism to them, but I would suggest that they can
    > also be thought of as cool and simple for use in American English.)
    > I also try to use "artefact" rather than "artifact".

    It was, according to local lore, "cool and simple for use in American English" in the early 1800s.

    When I say "local" I refer of course to The Bronx.

  26. Robert Coren said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

    @Joe Green: That's all right, you would have been right if my father hadn't changed his name in 1938.

    @Brett: Yes, of course. That's what I get for trying to reproduce 50-year-old knowledge from memory.

  27. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    Man, what do you call it when you misperceive, as a child, that variant spellings or pronunciations are different words – and when this instinct remains even after you eventually learn better? In my head "disk" and "disc" still have different meanings: a disc is a geometrical shape and a disk is an object having this shape. Similar for carmel/caramel, though in that case it's a part of speech difference, caramel being a noun and carmel an adjective.

    This is actually an on-topic question, because chord/cord for me is the reverse situation: I grew up assuming they were just variant spellings of one word that happened to have some polysemy. And despite knowing better now, in my head I still can't keep the "two" definitions straight.

  28. ShadowFox said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    @RP: The post was on Google+ yesterday and I did not check the date on the linked page.

    @Ross Presser: tight c(h)ords?

  29. Ellen K. said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    @Ross Presser,

    No, there's two different etymologies, one (the musical chord) going back to a word meaning "heart", and the other (string, etc) to a word meaning "guts". Entirely different internal body parts, and entirely different original words.

  30. Joe Fineman said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    Another such switch is "moral" (of a story), from French "morale", and "morale" (of troops etc.), from French "moral".

  31. Adrian said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    Joe beat me to it :)

  32. Arnold Zwicky said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 11:45 am

    In addition to the Eggcorn Database entry Ben Zimmer cites (for cord >> chord), there's also one for the reverse (chord >> cord), here.

  33. a George said,

    September 12, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

    A field of study for me is sound recording, so I was very happy 20 years ago when I found a Record Kit in a hardware store (ironmonger's this side of the great divide), expecting old new stock of an exciting appliance. I bought the box without looking inside, although it was somewhat lightweight. In the evening I unpacked the kit — and it contained a piece of string! Laughs were on me.

  34. Eugene B. said,

    September 24, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

    I know of a case years ago where an accident victim was taken to the hospital. On admission the ER doctor wrote an order for X-rays to "rule out chord damage." The radiologist accordingly took views of the upper neck (Cervical vertebrae 1 through 5) and found no injury to the vocal "chords." What the ER doctor actually wanted, however, was to rule out any damage to the spinal "cord." As it turned out, the victim had in fact sustained a fracture at the C6-C7 level. Since no X-rays were taken of his lower neck, however, this fracture went undetected and the victim's neck wasn't stabilized, eventually resulting in paralysis. As one can imagine, the distinction (if any) between "chord" and "cord," as well as the need for the adjectives "spinal" or "vocal," were major issues in the case.

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