Reaching a crescendo?

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There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.



  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    Well, you know, violists have a lot to feel bitter about…

  2. dw said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

    The word "climax" has followed a very similar semantic trajectory. It was ancient Greek for "ladder", whence it came to mean "a rhetorical figure of speech consisting of propositions rising in effectiveness". Today, however, it usually refers simply to a peak or high point, rather than the process of reaching that peak.

  3. Sili said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    I hope he wanted the music to reach a climax instead.

    Because I enjoy irony.

  4. Sili said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    He did! He did!

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

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

    Maybe I’m being churlish, but I find the ‘Hey, language changes’ argument often seems to miss the point… which is that the peevers are usually wrong, on the internet and off it, about standard English and dialects, about how they're spoken now and how they were spoken in the past.

    It’s as if someone claimed that dolphins are increasingly shedding their traditional wings, and well-meaning people responded, "Well, you know, species will change…"

  6. KevinM said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    Meta-peeve! Well played.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:25 pm

    The ODE gives one definition as "The loudest point reached in a gradually increasing sound."

  8. Barbara Partee said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    Good point. And some of the commenters did go beyond that – I didn't do them justice. Someone had dug up that cool fact about "climax" that dw found, and quite a lot of them pointed out that plenty of dictionaries list both meanings. That author was really asking for it, with his dogmatic "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 was soundly attacked both for his false presupposition that it has had only one meaning and for his foolish belief about non-change.

  9. Bill W said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    It takes a certain amount of musicianship to produce a gradual increase in volume instead of a sudden one, and not to reach the ultimate level of volume prematurely. For musicians, it's critical to maintain the distinction between a crescendo and a climax. This is an essential point and a frequent source of error on the part of poor musicians that gets under the skin of an accomplished performer like Miles Hoffman.

    It's true that words change over time and acquire new meanings. But I can understand how Miles Hoffman cringes every time he encounters the non-musical use of "crescendo" to mean "climax."

    Using "crescendo" to mean "climax" is as jarring to a musician applying the technical term "passive" to an active verb is to Geoff Pullen.

  10. Sili said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

    But climax *does* mean the same thing as crescendo – unless musicians are the only ones allowed to 'misuse' words.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    Maybe next the NYT can commission a piece from someone who hates the vulgar modern custom of calling that keyboard instrument a "piano" rather than its proper name pianoforte, when the whole original selling point of the instrument was its ability to do piano and forte equally well.

  12. dw said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

    @Bill W is exactly right: when playing in orchestras, student musicians are usually warned not to reach the high point of a crescendo prematurely. When I was playing, we would sometimes go through measure-by-measure to spell out the desired volume, e.g.
    measure 1: pianissimo
    measure 2: piano
    measure 3: mezzo piano
    measure 4: mezzo forte

    The vocabulary of the specialist is often at odds with that of the generalist, and that is certainly true in classical music. I still grimace at the use of "song" to mean "piece of music", but iTunes has popularized this so much that I see even young classical musicians using it online.


  13. Robert Coren said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    @Bill W: Yes, in the context of musical performance, musicians had better know what crescendo means, but that doesn't mean that using to refer to the climactic point when using it in other contexts is wrong, no matter how much it may annoy musicians (myself included).

    As I pointed out elsewhere, Leonard Bernstein complained about the common usage in a book published in 1959.

  14. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    @ Barbara Partee –

    Fair enough then. And of course the fact of language change is hugely important to the issue. It's just that emphasising that above all seems to give too much ground. I associate this habit with descriptivist converts like Stephen Fry, but looking again at this animation, which is what I particularly had in mind, I see that I'm being a bit unfair. He does mention historical flouting of things like the injunction against verbing nouns (though he treats other prescriptions, like those against less with count nouns and none with plural verbs, as if they were technically correct).

    @ Bill W –

    That's a false equivalence. I'm pretty sure Professor Pullum doesn't have a problem with people using the word passive differently from its grammatical use when they're not talking about grammar, but about, say, a person's behaviour.

  15. Alex Bollinger said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    I can see the point in musicians trying to keep these definitions separate in their field. They're technical terms for these professionals, and they need to refer to these specific concepts.

    On the other hand, most of us aren't musicians.

    It'd be like an economist trying to enforce the economics definition of "investment" as actually buying a machine that will make you more efficient, not paper that gets traded on Wall Street. We can try, but no one will have to listen to us.

  16. Eric P Smith said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    Then there's 'gamut', which originally meant the lowest note of a keyboard instrument, and has come to mean a whole range.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    Is there a short-form name for the stock error that professional-jargon technical meanings ought as of right to control the extended/metaphorical meaning of the same words when used in different contexts by non-members of the relevant guild? This guy also has the the-true-meaning-is-controlled-for-all-time-by-the-original-morphological-derivation-of-the-word-in-some-foreign-language error. It's like a greatest hits of bad arguments about words and their meanings. (As to his point at the end praising Joseph Conrad in rather patronizing terms for using the word "correctly" despite English being his third language, as best as I can tell from a combination of wikipedia and google translate, the Polish and French words for "crescendo" in the musical-notation sense both happen to be "crescendo.")

  18. John Ross said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:21 pm

    I don't really think this is language peevery, and I can't see why most of you seem to think it's OK to use a musical term wrongly just because the context is different. If a writer lacks musical grounding, why on earth (Earth?) should he use musical terminology at all, except to be pseud? I mean, if someone uses a sporting metaphor such as to "wear the yellow jersey" (which means the cyclist is in the lead, not that he has won), readers are entitled to expect a writer to follow that convention, and are also entitled to cry Fraud! when he gets it wrong.

  19. dw said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    @John Ross:

    I don't really think this is language peevery, and I can't see why most of you seem to think it's OK to use a musical term wrongly just because the context is different. If a writer lacks musical grounding, why on earth (Earth?) should he use musical terminology at all, except to be pseud?

    The first person to use "climax" to mean "peak" (instead of "a rhetorical figure of speech consisting of propositions rising in effectiveness") was likewise misusing a specialist term from classical rhetoric. Maybe that person was a "pseud", but at some point the pseudiness wore off; "peak" (one way or another) is now the general meaning of the term.

    Does that make us all pseuds?

  20. Dick Margulis said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

    All of which begs the question about the parameters of the general consensus.

  21. maidhc said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    Maybe there is a need to coin a term for words that have a specific meaning for specialists but are misused by non-specialists.

    Another one that comes to mind is "glitch". To a computer designer, a glitch is a very specific thing that has an exact definition – a voltage spike of very short duration. For some reason, non-specialists have adopted it to mean any unspecified problem – not that there was any real need for such a usage. So now it serves a second function, i.e., to denote membership in an elite group. Whenever someone says something like "It must have been some kind of computer glitch", to the expert it carries the subtext "This person is an ignoramus and anything they say can be safely ignored".

    "Parameter" serves a similar function in the software field. Also, for many years anyone who used the term "IT" immediately gave themselves away as an outsider, although this may be changing.

    For musicians it's usually pretty obvious who is or isn't a musician, so the misuse of musical terminology is not such a useful signifier.

  22. John Ross said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 5:57 pm


    It's amazing how often the etymological fallacy gets repeated by commenters to this site. Whatever the etymology of "climax", that isn't it's ordinary meaning now. But whatever ordinary people believe crescendo to mean, they know it is first and foremost a) an Italian word and b) a musical term, and in neither case does it mean "peak."

  23. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    John Ross says:

    "But whatever ordinary people believe crescendo to mean, they know it is first and foremost a) an Italian word and b) a musical term, and in neither case does it mean 'peak.'"

    Merriam-Webster says (speaking for "ordinary people"):


    a : a gradual increase; specifically : a gradual increase in volume of a musical passage
    b : the peak of a gradual increase : climax"

  24. John Ross said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    Extraordinary. OK, I back down.

  25. dw said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    @John Ross:

    It's amazing how often the etymological fallacy gets repeated by commenters to this site.

    It is indeed amazing. But did you have a specific point to make?

    But whatever ordinary people believe crescendo to mean, they know it is first and foremost a) an Italian word and b) a musical term, and in neither case does it mean "peak."

    Do "ordinary people" indeed know these things? I would love to see a survey. But in any case, this isn't how meaning works. Many customers of Starbucks are no doubt aware that "latte" is a) Italian and b) a culinary term. That doesn't change its meaning (in English) to "milk".

  26. John Ross said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 6:25 pm


    I don't go to Starbucks, and I have never to the best of my knowledge seen, smelt, or been anywhere near a latte. Accordingly, I don't use the word pretending to know what it means. Apparently, "peak" is an accepted meaning for crescendo, but it takes me by surprise. Now will you let me back down?

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

    "Crescendo" is used in such a wide variety of non-musical contexts and registers that one page of google books hits I pulled up has "whereas the end is a stepwise crescendo with maximum iceberg calving and rapid ice margin retreat" immediately adjacent to "she was able to forget everything but her own crescendo of lust."

  28. maidhc said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

    According to my Italian dictionary, "latte" is the Italian word for milk. I don't know what they do at Starbucks, but cafe latte in the US usually means espresso and steamed milk. It's not quite the same as "caffè latte" in Italy, but similar.

  29. Brett said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 7:31 pm

    @maidhc: But most people don't call the drink a "cafe latte" any more; the usual word is just "latte."

  30. maidhc said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

    @Brett: It would be redundant to go into a place where almost everything they sell is caffe something-or-other and specify caffe latte. The same with mocha or macchiato. Particularly since we don't use those words in any other context. But on the menu it usually says caffe latte. For example:
    (poor web design, you have to mouse over)

    But just as everyone understands that 'bus is merely a convenient shortening of omnibus, so too … oh dear.

  31. David Morris said,

    July 29, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

    I had learned or played music for about 30 years before I discovered that 'piano' and 'forte' don't mean (primarily at least) 'loud' and 'soft' in Italian, but rather 'level, plain, even' and 'strong'.

    I think it's fair to say that every field of human endeavour has specialised terminology with a precise meaning in that field, but words sometimes enter wider use, and develop other meanings which might differ slightly or greatly from the specialised meaning. For example, 'quantum leap', which in physics is a very precise and very, very small distance under very precise circumstances.

  32. the other Mark P said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 12:27 am

    It would be redundant to go into a place where almost everything they sell is caffe something-or-other and specify caffe latte.

    I thought so. Until I ordered a "latte" in Italy at a coffee bar, and got milk.

  33. Jason said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 1:12 am

    Sure, but everyone is a hypocrite on this point. Try misusing linguistics terms of art, like calling everything under the sun a "verb", and see how relaxed Geoff Pullum is about it.

  34. J. Xiao said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 3:11 am

    I never had formal linguistics training, but I thought the gist of communication is to get ideas across precisely and accurately – since being acceptably accurate and precise enough is a mark that keeps floating around depending on the (intending) audience, some degree of language change is all but inevitable, since schemata – the ways how people mentally organize ideas, change.

    Regarding the outcry of 'Then the use of language would be a lawless area in which people misuse terms and cause confusion', it most likely won't, because such a process would be slowly spreading and may take generations to complete, a population-wide change in word meaning may be just as gradual as historical sound changes; on the other hand, any (closely-knitted, as in 'would talk frequently to each other') A and B in a given language community are likely to embrace one or both meanings so that confusion wouldn't really arise, as we (hardly) observe in reality. It is an organically-occurring result.

  35. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 4:04 am

    It quite easy to see how people would shorten the phrase 'reach the peak of a crescendo" to 'reach a crescendo.' It is a metonymy or synecdoche: whole for the part. Use the entire crescendo to refer to its most distinctive part, its peak. Why not? It seems pedantic to prohibit that kind of rhetorical substitution.

  36. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 5:14 am

    @ Jason –

    To repeat my reply to Bill W above, the point is that Hoffman is explicitly prescribing the usage outside the sphere of music, e.g.

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


    So 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.

    Professor Pullum gets annoyed when people, say, ignorantly condemn 'passive' constructions that are not in fact passive. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't catch him fulminating against usages like "When did you become so passive?"

  37. joanne salton said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 5:28 am

    Pflaumbaum has a point, but certain cases would less clear, and Jason is right that people are not consistent with their technical term peeves. When is it OK to use a technical word, poorly understood by most people, in a general sense that is somewhat painful to the specialist? I don't think corpus linguistics can easily answer that.

  38. GeorgeW said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 5:34 am

    @J. Xiao: "… I thought the gist of communication is to get ideas across precisely and accurately …"

    Sometimes. language is deliberately ambiguous. Sometimes, deceitful. Sometimes, colorful. Sometimes, it is used to convey social distinctions. Sometimes, . . .

  39. tetri_tolia said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 5:53 am

    You know, every idiolect has a vantage point from which certain things seem obvious. Even though I know it's the norm of the English language, as a Spanish speaker I silently despise as ignoramuses anybody who uses the conventional English pronunciation of "quixotic", because, frankly, it sounds to me like completely silly mistake which would be easily correctible with a bit of education. The fact is that my English is more precisely rule-bound when touching words of Spanish origin, just as a musicians might be when touching words also belonging to a precise musical lexicon. The temptation to peeve about parts of your vocabulary that make complete sense but other people just don't get but would surely understand if only I told them how silly they sound is very strong — but I guess what it misses is the corresponding making proficient of "regular" English speakers in music or Spanish — neither of which would be bad things at all, but which don't happen even in regular occurrence, much less by merely commenting on their English usage.

  40. Mark Liberman said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 6:16 am

    It's worth noting that three of the OED's citations for the sense "The peak of an increase in volume, force, or intensity; a climax. Esp. in phr. to reach a crescendo" are from F. Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Wodehouse, and Leon Uris — starting in 1925:

    1925 F. S. Fitzgerald Great Gatsby iii. 68 The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.
    1939 P. G. Wodehouse Uncle Fred in Springtime iv. 54 The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.
    1958 L. M. Uris Exodus i. xxvii. 160 At the end of the second week the Jews were still holding fast and the clamour in the press was reaching a crescendo.

    We can add Ford Maddox Ford's characterization of Hemingway:

    Hemingway constructed his stories like Sousa composed his marches, building to a crescendo, at which point the character of a man becomes naked.

    And many examples in Faulkner, who was fond of the word and used it in ways whose poetic oddness may avoid attention from the scolds, e.g.

    In the orchard the bees sounded like a wind getting up, a sound caught by a spell just under crescendo and sustained. [The Sound and the Fury]

    The car shot bodily from the tunnel in a long upward slant, the darkness overhead now shredded with parallel attenuations of living fire, toward a crescendo like a held breath, an interval in which she would swing faintly and lazily in in nothingness filled with pale, myriad points of light. [Sanctuary]

    Hub bent forward and reached his hand under the dash,and the cars wept on with a steady, leashed muttering like waking thunderous wings; then the road flattened in a long swoop toward another rise and the muttering leaped to crescendo and the car shot forward with neck-snapping violence. [Sartoris]

    We should also observe that William Safire discussed the matter at length in 1991:

    'DEMANDS TO FIX U.S. Health Care Reach a Crescendo" was a recent New York Times subhead, under a teasing headline, "Say Ouch."

    "Ouch, indeed!" retorts John Bloomfield of New York, who is coming to the end of his patience. "Can't you do anything about the flagrant and widespread misuse of the word crescendo ? I have seen it used to mean 'climax' or 'critical point' in all sorts of respected publications."

    That's because the climactic sense of crescendo has entered the GUZ — the Gray Usage Zone — somewhere between correct and incorrect, neither safely precise nor readily correctable.

    I've often stuck up for Bill Safire, but in this case it seems odd to characterize 60-odd years of examples from the likes of Fitzgerald, Wodehouse, and Faulkner as being in "the Gray Usage Zone".]

  41. Adam Funk said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 6:52 am

    "Crescendo" is a technical term, just like "passive voice". If linguists assign themselves the right to prescribe the meaning of the latter, it's hypocritical to deny musicians the same right for "crescendo" (physicists for "quantum leap", &c.).

  42. Terry Hunt said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:10 am

    My intended scientific career never got off the ground, but to my recollection and continued popular science reading, there is no "quantum leap" in physics – it's a "quantum jump."

  43. Barbara Partee said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    A little nagging doubt has been troubling me since I first posted. And that concerns the paraphrase of "reach a crescendo" as "reach a climax". I think that paraphrase fits quite a lot of the uses, but still I feel a difference between the two. Take the last example in Mark's note: "Demands to fix US health care reach a crescendo'. I don't think that implies that they will now decrease, as "climax" or "peak" would imply. I think there's a use in which "reach" is just a favored "light verb" used because we can't use "crescendo" as a verb itself. So in the example at hand, "reach a crescendo" suggests to me that the pace (or noisiness, or whatever) of demands greatly accelerated — there had been demands, but now they're snowballing. And if I'm right about such a use, there's no implication in that case that won't keep on at a high or even further increasing rate or volume.
    I really don't know if that means there are two different non-technical senses of "crescendo", or whether the one I'm trying to describe should be counted as a metaphorical use of the normal technical sense. The "reach" part seems to go better with the "climax" sense, and "reach" isn't normally a light verb, is it? Or is it? We have: reach a conclusion = conclude; reach a full stop = come to a full stop = fully stop (?); reach a decision = decide; reach a compromise = compromise. These aren't perfect paraphrases, since the "reach a …" phrase includes explicitly the sense of reaching the result state of a process that takes some time, while the simple verb may allow the possibility of practically instantaneous action.
    But that reflection on phrases with "reach a" doesn't fit well with the sense of "reach a crescendo" that I was just arguing for, since I was arguing that the crescendo did NOT have to be the end-result state of a process. Oh, but I could appeal to phrases like "reach a steady state" — that's something that can then keep going; so "reach a crescendo" could also involve getting into a "crescendo-state" that can keep going.
    I really don't have clear intuitions about this. There may be a blend in my mind between the 'climax' sense of 'crescendo' and its original sense.

  44. Barbara Partee said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:26 am

    Adam, your complaint has already been answered. No one has objected to prescriptive standardization for technical terms within particular domains, whether music, linguistics, or physics. The discussion is all about whether there's anything surprising or bad about such terms acquiring different senses outside of those technical domains. Linguists have no complaint about phrases like "a passive person" or "passive resistance".

  45. J. Xiao said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    @GeorgeW Would you mind explaining what you have just typed using something other than language? (No hand signs of course since they are also language.)

    With the greatest respect, I doubt you could get the message across. And that is the preciseness of language I was getting on, which is not mere
    'use the right word' precise. Without language, our ancestors might not be able to arrange a simple ambush on a wild animal with their fellow tribesmen.

    The deliberateness you've mentioned is exactly reflecting how an interlocutor wants his or her counterpart to react, and without preciseness the 'intended' reaction is unlikely to be elicited. And similarly, the preciseness of language allow subtleties (that can interact more delicately with the contexts and) that reflects positions on the social hierarchy, and this is sometimes cited as a milestone in how language interacts with the organization of early human society.

  46. Bill W said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    'Professor Pullum gets annoyed when people, say, ignorantly condemn 'passive' constructions that are not in fact passive. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't catch him fulminating against usages like "When did you become so passive?"'

    I recognize the argument that "crescendo" has lost even a metaphorical link to music, and has become so completely detached from its musical origin that there's nothing wrong with using it in a way that is different from–and, indeed, contrary to–its use in a musical context. My analogy with Prof. Pullum's reaction to the misuse of "passive" in a grammatical context (or worse, "passive mood" or "passive tense") was an attempt to explain why Miles Hoffman gets so worked up when he encounters "crescendo" in non-musical contexts used in a way that's not just different from its use in a musical context, but from a musical point of view flatly wrong.

    As a teacher, as a chamber music coach and even as a perform in ensembles of professionals, he has probably had to intervene hundreds of times to get instrumentalists to execute crescendos properly–not to reach the climax abruptly or prematurely and not to go beyond the right level of volume (for example, when crescendoing from a low level of volume to a slightly higher one; yes, it can be verbed). I don't think it's mere idle pedantry on his part–like insisting that "decimate" can only mean "execute every tenth man pour encourage les autres": He's a very accomplished professional musician, and I think it really does grate on him every time he sees "crescendo" used in a way that runs counter to his musical instincts.

    So, please, cut him some slack.

  47. GeorgeW said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 8:05 am

    @J. Xiao: My point was simply that the intentions of communication are often other than "accurate and precise." The intent can be deliberately ambiguous. It can be deliberately inaccurate. It can be entertaining and not particularly informative, etc.

    I guess one could argue that a deliberately ambiguous statement could "accurately and precisely" avoid accuracy and precision.

  48. Michael Briggs said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    What are these "crescendos" of which you all speak? What happened to the crescendi?

  49. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:22 am

    If a newspaper columnist were to complain about the dovish tone of a presidential speech on terrorism by writing that the speech was "delivered in the passive voice," wouldn't professional linguists have a right to complain about the clumsiness of the metaphor as well as its technical incorrectness? Isn't this essentially what Pullum is complaining about here in relation to "X is a verb," as alluded to by Jason above?

    Perhaps it is strange to regard a usage as being in a grey zone after 60 years of use by well-regarded writers, but looking at the Fitzgerald and Wodehouse examples quoted above, it seems to me that there are (at least) three possible accounts of these: (1) Fitzgerald and Wodehouse mistakenly believe the technical meaning of "crescendo" is "the loud part"; (2) They are using "crescendo" metonymically, as suggested above by Jonathan Mayhew; (3) They haven't thought very hard about the meaning but simply like the sound of the word and think it looks sophisticated. My guess is some combination of (1) and (3), but others here may disagree.

    Finally, a naive question: 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?

  50. Bill W said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:46 am

    "What are these "crescendos" of which you all speak? What happened to the crescendi?"

    The Italian word "crescendo" is the gerund of the verb "crescere", not a noun. So if you really want to embrace the etymological fallacy, "crescendi" is just as illicit as "crescendos."

  51. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    If a newspaper columnist were to complain about the dovish tone of a presidential speech on terrorism by claiming that the speech was "delivered in the passive voice," wouldn't linguists have a right to complain about the clumsiness of the metaphor? Isn't this essentially what Pullum is saying here in relation to "X is a verb"?

    Perhaps it is strange to regard a usage as being in a grey zone after 60 years of use by well-regarded writers, but looking at the Fitzgerald and Wodehouse examples quoted above, it seems to me that there are (at least) three possible accounts of these. (1) Fitzgerald and Wodehouse mistakenly believe the technical meaning of "crescendo" is "the loud part." (2) They are using "crescendo" metonymically, as suggested above. (3) They haven't thought very hard about the meaning at all, but just like the sound of the word. My guess is some combination of (1) and (3), but others here may disagree.

    Finally, a naive question: by what criteria, corpus-based or otherwise, do descriptive 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 no longer matters outside technical contexts? Would these criteria suggest that the threshold had been crossed for "crescendo" in 1925, 1945, 1975, or 2025?

  52. Jeff DeMarco said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:48 am

    @Eric P Smith – "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." 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. As a side note, the highest note in the system is well known to cruciverbalists: "e la."

  53. Sili said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    What happened to the crescendi?

    They went the way of the climakes.

    [(myl) With the tremolos, prestos, allegros, andantes, piccolos, cellos, pianos, and violas in hot pursuit.]

  54. KeithB said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    Terry Hunt:
    Not only that, but a quantum jump is the smallest jump that is allowed. In popular usage a "quantum leap" is usually a large one.

  55. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    (Just to avoid any confusion regarding my proposed analogy with Pullum's "X is a verb" post – I realize that Pullum is only using the peeve as a springboard from which to make a substantial (and useful) point about linguistics, and that by contrast Hoffmann, although he does make some substantial points about music, ends up placing too much emphasis on the peeve itself and thus misses an opportunity to say more about music – but perhaps if he had written about music rather than a language peeve, the NYT wouldn't have been interested in publishing it. But in any case, the peeves themselves seem quite closely parallel. Would anybody here be prepared to make the argument that somebody who writes "art is a verb" is simply using the word "verb" in the non-technical sense of "doing stuff"? We can't cite Fitzgerald or M-W to show that this meaning exists, but Pullum's own post supplies the data to show that it is in fairly common usage. This doesn't stop him from saying it is wrong, and I don't see why it should.)

  56. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    (…or, to be more precise, at what frequency we would feel justified in telling Pullum that he is being unreasonable in trying to restrict the scope of non-technical metaphorical uses or the word "verb")

  57. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:51 am

    Typo: of the word "verb"

  58. Corey B said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    If technical music theory prohibits us laypeople to use "crescendo" to mean anything other than "a gradual change in volume", does that mean we also have to stop using the word "unison" to mean "all together at once" if the sounds we are describing also happen to be in off-key pitches? i.e. "The class grumbled in unison."

    'Cause I'm just saying… that's not going to happen either.

    Example: physicists don't have control over the common or metaphorical uses of words like "gravity" and "magnetism", but this doesn't stop them from using the words technically in their own works.

    Nor does it stop non-scientists from being able to understand, and use, these words in EITHER sense, as they like.

    And if music students come into their classes not understanding the technical use of "crescendo", well… it would be the responsibility of the teacher to clarify its meaning within the context of the musical profession, wouldn't it?

  59. Rodger C said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    @Jason: Well, etymologically every word is a verb, right? Ahem…

    @tetri_tolia: The pronunciation of "quixotic" in English is a testament to its antoquity. It dates from an age in which English-speakers made no more attempt than French-speakers do to pronounce foreign words according to anything but one's own rules. I heard "Don Quicksot" on a British TV show in the 1950s; I don't know what they say over there today. I pronounce that name in English with the usual minimal adaptation–"Don Kehoty"–but I also say "quicksottic," though I'm perfectly capable of saying quijotesco correctly when speaking Spanish.

  60. tetri_tolia said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    I guess my point is that I read 'quixotic' for years before I ever heard it pronounced and was amazed that (history or no) it would be actually pronounced the "wrong" way — and somehow I've never fully accepted it. So also for a person whose only use of 'crescendo' has been the literal musical one instead of the poetic literary one.

  61. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    I don't think that other meanings of "passive" are metaphorical extensions of the linguistic terminology. They probably developed independently from the Latin verb patior, I suffer. We get words like patient and passion from this verb as well.

  62. Levantine said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

    'Quixote' pronounced 'kwiksǝt' still occurs in British English, and is certainly not a sign of lack of education. As Rodger C points out, the pronunciation merely attests to the antiquity of the borrowing from Spanish.

  63. Brett said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    @KeithB: The point of a quantum jump is not that it is small, and it certainly does not need to be to the nearest accessible state. What the "quantum leap" metaphor seems to be striving for is that the leap bypasses intermediate states, without passing through them.

  64. Eric P Smith said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    @Jeff DeMarco: re 'gamut', thanks, you're right.

  65. Colin Fine said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

    Another musical term which has made the leap to common parlance with a significantly changed meaning is "upbeat".
    As a musician, I know that the down-beat is the strong, definite one, and the up-beat is the tentative or prefatory one. But it would be perverse to misunderstand the everyday sense of the words, even though I have a strong suspicion that they originally made the crossing thanks to someone who had heard them but utterly failed to understand them.

  66. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    @Barbara Partee 7:18am: You are probably right to be hesitant about analyzing "reach" as a light verb, not only because most uses of "reach a crescendo" can be rephrased as "build to a crescendo", for which the light verb analysis clearly seems inappropriate, but also because "crescendo" itself can indeed be a verb in English. (Also – apologies for the earlier double-posting. It must have been caused by a glitch. Perhaps I should have waited longer before re-posting, but my enthusiasm was reaching a crescendo and I couldn't help myself.)

    @Corey B 11:56am: This example with "unison" isn't a good analogy for what many people find grating about "reach a crescendo", which isn't the mere fact of its metaphorical origins but rather the fact that taken as a metaphor it doesn't make sense. (What really irks them is that nobody cares enough about a subject about which they feel passionately to get even the basic terminology right, but that's another issue.) If you think that "unison" means "all together at once", would you accept its use in the following sentence: "When Chomsky finished his speech, the hall was suddenly filled with murmuring as the audience started speaking in unison, some agreeing enthusiastically with what Chomsky had said, others vehemently opposing his ideas."?

  67. Xmun said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

    @Brett: I'm pretty sure that in earlier English, and for that matter in earlier Spanish, the x in Quixote was pronounced like the middle consonant of the French version, Don Quichotte (or Donkey Shot as C. K. Stead spelt it in a poem of his, "Quesada"). Similarly the initial consonant of Xerez (now Jerez) was pronounced the same way, and that name gave us the English word "sherry". The later spelling with a j reflects a change in pronunciation of the consonant to [h].

  68. Xmun said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

    Sorry, please read that comment of mine as addressed @Levantine, not @Brett.

  69. Levantine said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

    Xmun, you may well be right — I don't know enough about the topic. I was just chiming in to point out that the kwiksət pronunciation, which is surely of some age, is still found in British English.

  70. JS said,

    July 30, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

    Peeves are personal; contempt for self-righteous public expression of such is universal. Hence the Chinese saying: "the malady of man is the joy he takes in being teacher to others."

    And again — someone might tell Hoffman that when his music is getting louder, nothing is "growing" at all. That is, this all reminds of mathematicians' indignation at creative lay usage of terms such as set and map, when such terms began themselves as borrowings licensed by just the sorts of metaphors the "layperson" would now use to re-borrow them.

  71. the other Mark P said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 3:03 am

    Hoffman is also wrong in his assertion that 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.

    Firstly, why would I consult a musician about the use of the word crescendo in a non-musical setting. Which is what he is peeving at, after all.

    And I bet it takes an enormous amount of effort to learn to write a story about jets that doesn't make pilots cringe.

  72. Rolig said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 4:19 am

    I wonder if scrupulous violinists say things like, "The situation reached a mezzo forte when…"?

    And isn't it a little sad when we can simply accept the truth of what Alex Bollinger said:

    On the other hand, most of us aren't musicians.

    There was a time when learning how to play a musical instrument (and learning the technical meaning of crescendo) was a normal part of one's education, even in US public education.

    I don't mind people saying "reach a crescendo" and I may even have said it myself more than once, but it would be nice to live in a society where everyone knew what a crescendo was in music because they all had a couple years of music lessons when they were children.

  73. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 7:42 am

    When was the lost golden age to which Rolig refers? As was established upthread, the deprecated usage of crescendo can be found at least as early as the Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald graduated from high school and matriculated at Princeton a century ago this year. It was also claimed that Leonard Bernstein had the same usage peeve circa 1959, which was probably before the catastrophic decline of cultural cachet associated with classical music that poor Mr. Hoffman has had to live through had fully gotten underway. I.e., in 1959 as in 1913, it was probably more likely for a college graduate in the US to be sufficiently conversant with classical music to fake his way through cocktail-party small talk on the subject. That is no longer part of the essential set of cultural capital small-talk subjects. It has its devotees, but so do Japanese comic books. I wonder if people whose hobbies and/or professions were once highly culturally prestigious but have more recently become marginal are especially prone to prescriptivism?

  74. Adam Funk said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    I'd like to add some further explanation to my comparison of "passive" and "crescendo" above.

    The OED has "passive" in the non-grammatical & grammatical senses back to about the same date (late C.14) in English. I suspect that the general sense of the Latin "passivus" is older, & the grammatical one is an extension of it. So the non-technical "passive" was established before it became a technical term. There's also a significant difference between general usage such as "passive resistance" & technically incorrect usage with regard to language (which GKP rightly fulminates against).

    "Crescendo" in English, however, is primarily a technical term in music. (If people want to use it other ways in Italian, that's a different matter.) The sloppy use of it is being applied to music or at least sound — that is analogous with the misuse of "passive" in discussing language.

  75. John said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 8:29 am

    "Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change"

    In my experience, laypeople will quickly break this argument out when the "error" in question is one that they have used themselves all their lives, only becoming blind to it when it comes to "errors" that THEY find annoying. A bit like the way "freedom of religion" only applies to your own religion, and not to all the wrong ones.

    Personally I think this argument gets too much credence; 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. It may be pointless and if accompanied with too much anger it may betray some skewed priorities, but it's no worse than holding strong opinions about, say, food or entertainment, as many, many people do. I dislike the word "irregardless" in the same way I dislike Everybody Loves Raymond and beetroot, and nobody is going to tell me I'm wrong to do so – but there is a line between setting out my opinions and the reasons I hold them, and deriding others' opinions as objectively wrong.

  76. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 8:45 am

    A Google Ngram search for "crescendo" shows a very definite peak around 1945, with steady decline since then. With a some variation, the same is true for a number of other musical terms ("orchestra", "symphony", "concerto", etc.) in both British and American English. This would seem to support the "declining cultural prominence of classical music" idea, but the data seem almost too clear, and I wonder whether there might be a sampling artifact involved. The Ngram results for "crescendoing", "reaching a crescendo", and "building to a crescendo" show a completely different pattern: steadily increasing usage since c.1940, at roughly similar frequencies (around 1/100 of "crescendo").
    (Note also that there seems to be no pattern of peak and decline for "crescendo" in French, German, or Spanish.)

  77. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    Adam Funk: When you say "is primarily a technical term in music," do you mean "I have looked at COCA or Google Books or some other suitable source of evidence for modern English and confirmed that a majority of hits for "crescendo" are instances of the technical term being used in a technical sense"? Or do you mean something else, and if so what?

  78. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 9:35 am

    Here's a parallel that didn't strike me until my commute this morning. Italian "crescendo" descends from either Latin "crescens" or some close morphological relative thereof. "Crescens" in Latin means inter alia, "growing, increasing," from which we get modern English "crescent." But "crescent" does not primarily mean "increasing," it means "a shape like that shape the moon has partway through the process of 'increasing' OR the same shape flipped-around that the moon has partway through the process of 'decreasing.'" So some peever could complain that "waxing crescent" is redundant while "waning crescent" is oxymoronic.

  79. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Sorry, should have spelled out more clearly the "crescent" point – it's very much like "climax" in that there's been semantic drift from a word for a process to a word for a significant/characteristic point associated with that process, but differs in that the significant/characteristic point for "crescent" is early in the process of increasing (or late in the process of decreasing) whereas with "cliimax" the significant/characteristic point is the end-point of the process, i.e. the top rung of the ladder.

  80. naddy said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    And speaking of the connection between "crescendo" and "crescent", the French cognate of "crescendo" is "croissant". :-)

  81. joanne salton said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 10:31 am

    As to grey areas, such-and-such a dictionary has been brandished during this conversation, as usual, in order to prove that this is not a grey area. I rather think one panel of officialy designated linguistic experts, known to all, would work a bit better as a go-to resource. We need one, since on occasion we are forced to edit articles, mark essays etc. No doubt I should be exiled to France for holding such a view.

  82. MikeA said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    I have to wonder about the "technical term adopted for general use" exemption, when the term in question (e.g. "byte" or "baud") really has no non-technical use, but where there is a good chance that mentioning the actual definitions to a semi-technical speaker will get a knee-jerk "language changes, get used to it, bitch!" response. As you can tell, I am a technical person, but I do sympathize with music teachers who tire of having to repeatedly explain the musical sense of (formerly primarily) musical terms.

    I was avoiding commenting on this, but this morning's Register has an article on offensive tweets, and refers to the offenders as "trolls", and the comments (well, the "most popular" ones, I am not going into the cesspit for a thorough analysis) peeve about "When I were a lad, trolls were about more than mere insulting talk…". Can't tell if any/all of them were trolling. (but one does use their "pedant prof" icon)

  83. Robert Coren said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    @John: "…there is a line between setting out my opinions and the reasons I hold them, and deriding others' opinions as objectively wrong."

    Exactly; and a peeve of mine is that people often seem to cross this line, not only in matters of language use, but in matters of taste such as those you cite.

    @naddy: 'the French cognate of "crescendo" is "croissant".' Good point. I think it's time to go get some breakfast.

  84. Adam Funk said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 11:47 am

    @J.W. Brewer: When I say that it's "primarily a technical term in music" (in English), I mean that it came into English purely as a musical term, & that most people would still recognize it as a musical term (even though many of them may have the definition wrong). "Passive" is different because the non-grammatical sense is at least as "original" as the grammatical one.

    (I also think "crescendo" falls in Fowler's "popularized technicalities" category.)

  85. Bill W said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    'the French cognate of "crescendo" is "croissant".

    Not exactly. "Croissant" is the present particple of the verb "croître." "Croître" is cognate with the Italian verb "crescere". So the exact Italian cognate of "croissant" is the present participle "crescente."

    The Italian verb form "crescendo" is a "gerund" (a verbal adverb), not a participle. French doesn't have a distinct verb form that is exactly cognate with Italian gerunds in "-ando," "-endo." However, a verbal adverb can be formed periphrastically in French as "en" + present participle. The French translation of "crescendo" would be "en croissant" (although in French musical scores, the instruction to crescendo corresponding to Italian "crescendo" is indeed simply "croissant").

  86. crescendo | Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

    [...] 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 [...]

  87. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

    I suppose this is a ubiquitous problem with "popularized technicalities"; once they start being used in metaphorical/extended senses by people who are not adepts in the relevant technical field, there is an inherent risk of a metaphorical/extended sense developing that does not match up cleanly to the technical sense known to that subpopulation of adepts, because non-adepts will generally not have strong intuitions distinguishing between logical extensions of the technical sense and extensions that involve semantic drift a/k/a JUST BEING WRONG and there is thus no structural safeguard against the latter type becoming popular. I cannot imagine a solution for this seemingly-inevitable tendency, other than to take steps to render your technical field so obscure and unpopular that the general population will not be inclined to treat its jargon as a source of novel extended/metaphorical lexical items. Would it comfort our peeving violist here if we predicted that the increasing marginality of classical music to the general culture decreases the risk of similar peeve-inspiring problems arising in the future?

  88. Yakusa Cobb said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

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

  89. Rose said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    Of course language changes and evolves, but we can influence that evolution, and we can work to preserve that which we think is worth preserving. For a "repeated flagrant misuse" ("crescendo" for "climax," for example) to gain acceptance as correct, the misuse should be interesting, or beautiful, or inevitable, or should meet a need that can not otherwise be well or comfortably met. And it seems to me that crescendo-for-climax meets none of these criteria.
    Webster's and OED say otherwise? So what. Lexicographers and dictionary editors are human and make mistakes, and at the very least make decisions that are disputable (see Charlton Laird's wonderful essay, "Language and the Dictionary," speaking of Webster's).

    I think Daniel Trambaiolo (above) is very likely correct in suspecting that Fitzgerald and Faulkner and many other writers who have used the term crescendo have done so without knowing the proper meaning of the term (personally, I've long suspected that many people associate the sound of "crescendo" with "crash") — and others' post-hoc citing of Webster's and OED's "secondary definitions" wouldn't, or doesn't,change that.

    But more importantly… it seems to me that if you accept crescendo for climax, you have to be prepared to accept such absurdities as "the crescendo reached a crescendo." And if sufficiently consistent, widespread misuse is going to be the standard for acceptance and "evolution," are those who would accept "crescendo" for "climax" prepared to accept "unique" for "excellent," or "admirable" (or something like that), and to accept the use of the term "very unique"? And if they "accepted" it, would they go so far as to use "very unique" in their own writing?

  90. Vidor said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    I don't know why any English speaker would feel obligated to pronounce "quixotic" in the Spanish manner, since when an English-speaker uses that word, he is speaking English. We pronouce words the way we pronounce them, and we rightly judge anyone who pronounces foreign loan-words in the foreign manner to be a pretentious twit. I'm reminded of the running gag on "King of the Hill" in which Peggy, who fancied herself a Spanish-speaker but in fact couldn't speak it at all, always made a point to pronunce "Mexico" as "meh-hee-co".

    Getting to the main point of the original entry:

    "languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change."

    Every time I come to this blog and read things like this I start sympathizing with the purists. 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? Maybe every student in elementary school should get an A, because there are no rules, because languages change and purists shouldn't peeve. Maybe the profession of "English teacher" should be done away with, because there are no rules, because languages change and purists shouldn't peeve. Maybe everyone in a spelling bee should be the winner.

  91. KeithB said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

    Should the student get an 'A' if he spells and writes like Chaucer?

  92. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 3:10 pm

    A student who could spell and write like Chaucer would certainly get an A in my book. Even if he spelled and wrote like John Lydgate.

  93. Xmun said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    @Adam Funk
    Fowler's article on "Technical Terms" does not mention "crescendo". The only mention of it is an entry to itself, thus:

    "crescendo Pronounce kresh-. Pl. -os, see -O(E)S 3"

    (I refer to the 1926 edition; the second edition of 1965, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, doesn't have the article.)

  94. Xmun said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

    @Adam Funk
    Sorry, I see you were referring to the article "Popularized Technicalities". "Crescendo", and indeed music in general, are not mentioned there either.

  95. Vidor said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 4:39 pm

    "Should the student get an 'A' if he spells and writes like Chaucer?"

    Of course, as should every other student, because languages change and purists shouldn't peeve! Take the dumbest kid in any fifth-grade class, the one who can't put a sentence together–well, he's just the face of a changing language, so he gets an A too.

    Honestly, I wonder if the people who believe languages change and purists shouldn't peeve see any point in classroom instruction in English grammar and spelling. If there are no rules, if anything is correct because speakers make their own English, how can anything be taught?

  96. Bill W said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

    @ J W Brewer: Thanks for your succinct, witty swipe at classical music and a fine musician.

  97. dw said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    Would it comfort our peeving violist here if we predicted that the increasing marginality of classical music to the general culture decreases the risk of similar peeve-inspiring problems arising in the future?

    Not when the term is as common as "song". My impression is that the widespread use of "song" to mean "a generic piece of music, regardless of whether it involves singing" is pretty recent. It's certainly been popularized by iTunes, which refers to all individual tracks as "songs".

    (Of course there have long been metaphorical and poetic uses of "song" to invoke singing, even in musical compositions not involving the human voice, but I think it's pretty easy to distinguish this usage).

  98. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 5:25 pm

    I take it Vidor's proposal was offered as a reductio ad absurdam, but I don't see it that way. I'm not aware of any evidence that e.g. American high school graduates (born to Anglophone parents) generally speak English any more grammatically than adult members of societies without either literacy or formal educational systems speak their native languages. This is not because there are no rules or that everything is correct; it is because human beings are designed (whether literally or metaphorically) to acquire L1 grammatical competence even if they grow up in societies without literacy or formal educational systems, which was the norm for the majority of the species for the majority of its history. So that should support an argument that American K-12 schooling should not be wasting time and resources trying to teach students the grammar of their native language. I am sufficiently unconvinced that classroom instruction in grammar-as-such has had any material positive impact on my own children's grammatical competence in English that I might propose this salutary reform to my school board were it not for the fact that they are almost certainly required by state law to provide such instruction whether it's useful or not. The acquisition of reading and writing (at least at the very rudimentary level) has traditionally been associated with some type of formal instruction, so that's a trickier question.

    In the good old days in Anglophone countries, a, if not the, chief point of formal education was to teach Latin, since it was no longer anyone's L1 and viewed as useful and/or prestigious to know. My firstborn is starting Latin this fall (in 7th grade, which is earlier than it was available to me). I wonder if we wait so long to start it because we foolishly think we have to teach them English first, when in fact they will do just fine with English if we leave them alone. (There is admittedly the separate issue of students whose native variety of English is a markedly non-prestige dialect. It might promote social mobility for their K-12 schooling to give them competence in the prestige dialect, if their K-12 schooling proved in practice to be able to do so.)

  99. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

    Bill W: I'm sure he's an excellent performer of the style of music liked by the people who like that style of music. More power to him and to his fans.* (Plus he's got a steady academic gig, which presumably provides health insurance etc. and reduces some of the downside risk of life as a performer.) But I don't ask the New York Times to give me column-inches to peeve about his area of expertise, and someone should have cared enough about him to dissuade him from looking foolish in public. Bright side: except for the first comment this thread has I believe been entirely free of anti-violist jokes, which I understand are a popular genre of humor in the classical-music subculture.

    *The decrease in the social-convention need for members of the elite classes or aspirants thereto to cultivate a feigned appreciation of classical music ought to result in an audience for the music that is smaller but more sincere and intense. This ought on balance to be a good thing, assuming the math can work for perfomers to still make a living.

  100. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    I am still waiting for the day when a linguist will accept that "passive voice" in common parlance has come to mean something like "impersonal construction."

    [(myl) Your wait was over on March 12, 2009: "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.".

    Except that as a matter of observational fact, common parlance does not treat "passive voice" as meaning "impersonal construction", but rather "construction that is vague about agency". Unless you think that we should re-define "impersonal" as well...]

  101. Brett said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: My observation, as a violist, is that jokes about violists are overwhelmingly told and collected by violists.

  102. Vidor said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    "my own children's grammatical competence in English"

    Which is defined how?

  103. Randy said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    Coincidentally enough, before I even saw this post, I was searching language log for something else completely unrelated and came across an entry from a few years ago by Roger Shuy in which the first sentence contains the phrase "reached a crescendo".

    Put that in your peeve pipe and smoke it.

  104. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 7:48 am

    "…by Roger Shuy in which the first sentence contains the phrase 'reached a crescendo.'"

    So… 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 cliche, and a tired one at that. (And because it's become a cliche its use should be accepted? )
    A letter in the NYTimes today says "I'll stick with Fitzgerald."
    Well, I re-read the citation at the end of Prof. Hoffman's article. And I'll stick with Conrad.

  105. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    @ Cory Lubliner –

    But again, that's a technical term used within its sphere – the description of language. Hoffman is explicitly objecting to the metaphorical use of crescendo outside of the musical sphere.

  106. Adam Funk said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:47 am

    @Xmun: Sorry, that was poorly written. I didn't mean that "crescendo" was in Fowler's "popularized technicalities" article, but that it is a contemporary example of that kind of thing, and that I think he would condemn it as a popularized technicality if he were alive today.

  107. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    Sorry to chime in again, but I don't think Hoffman is objecting at all to the metaphorical use of "crescendo" outside the musical sphere. If that were the case, why would he have cited Conrad with such admiration? He's only objecting to the incorrect use.

  108. Rodger C said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

    @dw: I remember a high-school classmate (now a choir director) complaining about this use of "song" some fifty years ago.

  109. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    Vidor: 400 years ago the only children growing up in or near what is now my well-regarded and highly-taxed school district natively spoke an Algonquin language, probably Munsee. Their society was illiterate and had no formal schools or standardized testing, much less internet access to the wikipedia article on Munsee grammar. Do you think those children grew up without (in the typical case) acquiring the ability to speak Munsee grammatically (and to understand other people speaking Munsee grammatically)? Do you think they had no rules and just made everything up as they went along? How do you think the authors of the wikipedia article on Munsee grammar (or the scholarly sources they drew on) were able to figure out what to say?

    You might wish to consult Geoff Pullum's vintage LL post titled "EVERYTHING IS CORRECT" VERSUS "NOTHING IS RELEVANT" for a helpful framework in which to think about some of these issues.

  110. dw said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    @Rodger C

    @dw: I remember a high-school classmate (now a choir director) complaining about this use of "song" some fifty years ago.

    Maybe the Recency Illusion strikes again :)

  111. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    @ Rose -

    In lines like the following, how is he not talking about the use of the phrase outside the musical sphere?…

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

    So 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.

  112. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 4:46 pm


    Yes, but again, it seems clear that what he's objecting to is not the use of the term "crescendo" metaphorically, outside the musical sphere — Conrad's "delicate crescendo of delight" is certainly outside the musical sphere — only to the incorrect use of the term.

  113. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    @ Rose -

    But the point is that people using passive to mean 'impersonal construction', which Cory Lubliner mentioned, are talking about language. It's reasonable for descriptive linguists to attempt to educate the public about linguistics terminology as applied to discussions about language, without being open to a charge of hypocrisy.

    A musician policing the use of an originally musical term to describe a battle is completely different, and completely unreasonable. It's not that he's claiming it mustn't be used metaphorically, I agree; it's that he can't handle the metaphorical usage straying semantically from the technical musical term. That's not at all true of the situation Cory invoked.

  114. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    Maybe it's worth pointing out that those of use who use "crescendo" to mean "climax" are not simply misunderstanding the musical sense of the word; we're not necessarily thinking of music at all. The word entered the general lexicon a long time ago, and the shift in meaning it's undergone is a perfectly natural one: from the process (growing gradually louder or more intense) to the result of that process (being loud or intense). Compare, for example, "purchase," which can mean both the process of purchasing and the result, the thing purchased. Or "growth"–again, both the process and the result.

  115. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    And to add one more thing to my last comment, re what Pflaumbaum just said: if we're not thinking of music when we say "crescendo" (though most of us are presumably aware that that's where the word originated), then we're not using the word as a metaphor. It doesn't belong to the musicians anymore; they have to share it with the rest of us.

  116. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 6:26 pm


    Pace principled descriptivists, but I would argue that not all straying is created equal. You say "straying semantically," but based on his article, I imagine Hoffman would say "straying needlessly," not to mention jarringly, and I would have to agree with him.
    Again, are you really prepared to defend a sentence such as, "The crescendo of semantic controversy began on July 29 and reached a crescendo on August 1." ?
    As you know, there are many musicians who are also very fine writers. And (with my family's permission, of course) I'd bet my house that not one of them has ever or would ever use the phrase "reached a crescendo" to mean "reached a climax," whether in a musical or non-musical context. Shouldn't that count for something? Do we only value knowledge and expertise in our own fields? Would it be unreasonable "policing" if someone used the term "piano" to mean "loud" (metaphorically, perhaps?) and a musician corrected him? Shouldn't it be, if not dispositive, at least meaningful that the vast majority of people who use (or have used) the phrase "reached a crescendo" are — I think we can fairly assume — people who are using it simply because they've heard or read it somewhere before, without an awareness of what the word "crescendo" in fact means? And at the risk of beating a dead horse, if the descriptivist simply says, "It means what people come to think it means," then is it now okay to say "very unique"? Is there no value — for clarity, for meaning, for avoiding slippery slopes of ambiguity — in deciding which standards to maintain?

  117. Eric P Smith said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    Well said. Thankyou.

  118. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

    @ Rose-

    The crescendo of semantic controversy began on July 29 and reached a crescendo on August 1 is certainly a terrible sentence stylistically, but that's because it uses the two different senses within a few centimetres of each other. You could build an equally bad sentence using one of Morten's examples above.

    Regarding the rest of your comment, it rests (there you go!) on the assumptions that his expert knowledge of music gives him expert knowledge of broader linguistic usage, and that such broader usage is even possible for elites to regulate.

    As for fine musician-writers never using the wird with that meaning, I can't come close to the old Thomas Lounsbury quote that I think was once posted on here:

    There is no harm in a man’s limiting his employment of none to the singular in his own individual usage, if he derives any pleasure from this particular form of linguistic martyrdom. But why should he go about seeking to inflict upon others the misery which owes its origin to his own ignorance?

  119. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

    "Very unique" has been in use since at least the nineteenth century. A random selection from a few seconds with google books (from the Jan. 29, 1834 issue of a periodical titled The New England Farmer): "The purple beech, a variety of Fagus sylvatica, is a very unique object with its strangely colored leaves, and a very splendid tree." People who find the "very unique" phenomenon terrifying or illogical should consider just giving up on the complexity and polysemy of English and switching to Esperanto or Lojban or something like that that might be more suitable for their personalities. People who find it initially puzzling or counterintuitive but who rather than being repulsed are instead interested in why it might nonetheless exist should give English a second chance, and stick around Language Log.

  120. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:07 pm


    "Broader usage"? Doesn't that just wind up meaning "incorrect usage"?
    And as for "elites" regulating or not regulating: shouldn't it be more a matter of non-specialists having the humility and intellectual curiosity — not to mention the duty, if they're going to write publicly — to learn the accurate meanings of the words they borrow?

    You say potato, and I say potato. You say tomato, and I say rutabaga. "But a rutabaga isn't a tomato!" says the botanist. That's okay, it's just a broader usage — fruit, vegetable, whatever — and he knows I mean tomato, anyway.

    Oh well, maybe we should just call the whole thing off.

  121. Vidor said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

    @J.W. Brewer,

    I followed that link and to be honest, I don't find it convincing. Pullum admits that no, he doesn't think "everything is correct", but instead he comes up with some standard where there are "correctness conditions". So if you are one of a group of illiterates who can't form a sentence, then you are correct, because all of your peers also are illiterate and can't form a sentence. And Pullum basically still admits that there are no standards for English and everything is in fact correct, as long as whatever you're saying meets the standards of whatever group you're in.

    I guess in the end I have more sympathy for the people pointing out that "crescendo" doesn't actually mean that than I do for the folks that throw up their hands and say that anybody can use any word however they want and nothing is wrong. Unfortunately the links in that post you linked me to don't work, because I'd be interested to read the other side of this debate.

    And is it hypocritical to have no standards with regard to grammar but to have high standards with regard to style? Because the first time I found this blog was when I read Pullum's hilarious takedowns of the terrible prose of Dan Brown. So it seems that sometimes everything is correct, but sometimes there are rules. (Rule #1: Never start a sentence with "renowned".)

  122. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 8:59 pm

    This has been an enlightening thread for me – it had previously never occurred to me that many people use the word "crescendo" without even thinking about its technical meaning in music, but it seems this is the case. It feels like being told that when a columnist writes "Obamacare violates American values down to our country’s very DNA," it isn't so much that she is using a questionable metaphor but rather that "essence" has simply become one of the valid meanings of the word "DNA" for people ignorant of biochemistry.

    Fighting about prescription vs. description seems to be one of the least interesting turns this discussion could take; there are much more interesting things to be said about how to study such a shift, especially since even the more insightful commenters here seem to be relying mainly on personal intuitions. Brewer challenges Adam Funk to show using corpus data that "crescendo" is primarily a technical term in music, but is it even possible to use this sort of data to determine when an originally metaphorical usage has become the literal meaning of a word? (And do we all agree that Fitzgerald, and perhaps also Wodehouse, were using "crescendo" incorrectly? Or are we not even sure about that?)

  123. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

    On a lighter note: before I learned here that "crescendo" is for many people no longer primarily a musical term, the phrase "to reach a crescendo" had always struck me as sounding something like this.

  124. Rose said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 9:31 pm

    @Daniel Trambaiolo

    Interesting. Thanks for that.
    But a couple of points…
    First, I don't think the use of "crescendo" for "climax" is metaphoric — I think the vast majority of people who use the term that way really think that crescendo means climax, and nothing else (if I could underline "and nothing else" with this program, I would.) I really don't want to sound unpleasant or insulting, but I have trouble finding a better way of saying it: I think it's more a matter of ignorance than of art. (Another way to say it, perhaps: the meaning of crescendo has "become" climax only for people who never knew the real meaning of crescendo.)
    As for "DNA" as a metaphor for "essence" – I don't find it such a bad metaphor. But if the columnist happened to think that "epidermis" meant "core," or "foundation," or, indeed, "essence," and wrote, "… down to its very epidermis," wouldn't it be reasonable for a biologist — or anybody else, for that matter — to say, "Hey, you're using that word wrong"?

  125. Morten Jonsson said,

    August 1, 2013 @ 10:45 pm


    You can call it ignorance if you like. But we all constantly use words whose meanings have changed over the years, from their first use in English, or in another language, or in a particular field such as music or the sciences. Maybe we're aware of those earlier meanings–it certainly widens the world for me to know how our 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 the 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.

  126. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 12:50 am

    @Rose: I mentioned "DNA" because it was fresh in my mind from having recently heard someone complain about it; your "epidermis" example provides a closer analogy to “crescendo,” but it has the disadvantage of being entirely hypothetical. A better real-life example might be found in the following exclamation by the eponymous heroine of the movie Juno: "Any of those things would be exponentially cooler than going to the prom with you!" If you think too hard about the technical meanings of "exponential," none of them can really be made to fit. However, there is no real ambiguity: the word is clearly being used as an intensifier.

    There is similar lack of ambiguity in "The battle reached a crescendo on the third day." However aesthetically unappealing many readers will find this sentence, they will only ever interpret “crescendo” in this context to mean something like "climax." (Right?)

    But what about the phrase "the crescendo of her lust," which I stumbled across (ahem) while looking through examples on Google Books? Would some readers interpret it as referring to orgasm, while others interpret it as referring to the preliminaries? Should usage manuals for writers of cheap romance novels warn them that when employing this cliché, they should take extra care to disambiguate?

  127. dw said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 1:34 am


    First, I don't think the use of "crescendo" for "climax" is metaphoric — I think the vast majority of people who use the term that way really think that crescendo means climax, and nothing else (if I could underline "and nothing else" with this program, I would.) I really don't want to sound unpleasant or insulting, but I have trouble finding a better way of saying it: I think it's more a matter of ignorance than of art. (Another way to say it, perhaps: the meaning of crescendo has "become" climax only for people who never knew the real meaning of crescendo.)

    I apologize for repeating myself, but everything you say about the word "crescendo" could also be said about the word "climax", whose original meaning, which still survives in rhetoric, is "a series of increasingly forceful statements". Are people, such as you, who use the word "climax" to mean "peak", displaying more ignorance than art? Has the meaning of climax "become" peak only for those who never knew the real meaning of climax? (These are, fittingly, rhetorical questions).

  128. Richard Wein said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 8:53 am

    Good points, Morten.

    I would add that strong feelings are raised because it's human nature to make moralistic judgements about such matters. To say that I was (until now) unaware of the original meaning of "crescendo" is no more than a neutral statement of fact, of which I have no reason to be ashamed. But to accuse me of "ignorance" is to suggest that I'm guilty of some failing. The word doesn't always carry that connotation, but it usually does.

    Something similar goes for statements that a usage is "right/wrong" or "grammatical/ungrammatical". These are not neutral expressions of fact, but typically carry connotations of success and failure. Because we crave success and want to avoid failure (plus perhaps we enjoy attributing failure to others) we are strongly motivated to judge usages as right or wrong. But the reality is far more complex than this binary categorisation suggests.

    All we can factually do is judge conformity to established patterns of usage. It's those patterns that make a language what it is. The rules that we state are at best abstractions from those patterns. But "pattern" must be considered broadly, and there are often conflicting patterns to weigh against each other. For example, one pattern is for English plurals to be formed by adding "-s". But another–more specific–pattern is to form the plural of "child" as "children". In this case, our acquired tendency to choose the more specific pattern in violation of the broader pattern is so universal and long-standing that no one is tempted to call it "wrong". But many other cases are less clear. When a new pattern arises, it will typically be considered a violation of a rule at first. With time and common use it may start to be regarded as an acceptable alternative. And perhaps eventually it may become accepted as a new rule. But our stated rules remain just our rough abstractions of these changing patterns of use (at best), together with a large dose of personal preference (at worst).

    When usages are sufficiently well-established and uncontroversial, describing them as "right" can be a sensible short-hand, replacing a more careful analysis. And we can sensibly use this shorthand more freely when we're teaching people to speak (than when we're discussing language) since then we're more interested in inculcating useful habits of speech than in presenting facts.

    There's no meta-rule which tells us we must choose the original musical sense of "crescendo" over the modern colloquial sense, or vice versa. We can use both. There may be some good pragmatic reasons for avoiding one usage. But even if there are, that doesn't make the other usage "wrong". This is not one of those cases where it's sensible to describe just one option as "right". But if Rose wants to inform people of the original meaning of "crescendo", so they can make a more informed choice, she's welcome to do so. I'm grateful to have been informed.

  129. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    @J.G. Brewer 12:24 — I suppose this is a ubiquitous problem with "popularized technicalities"…

    This account may be correct for many cases of semantic drift, but it seems to be empirically wrong for the case of "crescendo": the cited early examples of "crescendo" to mean "climax" all seem to have been related to music or sound. Even the metaphorical use by Leon Uris has a strong aural aspect (note the verb "clamour"), so it seems likely that he too believed the primary meaning of the word had something to do with music.

    The different meanings of the word thus seems to have developed in something like the following sequence: (1) "getting louder" (musical/aural); (2) "getting more intense" (metaphorical); (3) "loud part" (musical/aural); (4) "climax" (metaphorical).

    All the discussion here has focused on (4), but perhaps (3) was equally important, since the emergence of (3) is a clear indicator that the term was being used by people who were aware it had something to do with loud music but were unaware of the details. If we can trust the Ngrams data referred to above, it is interesting to note that sense (3) emerged during a period in which technical musical vocabulary was generally becoming more widely used (c.1900-1945), while clear examples of sense (4) began to emerge only when the frequency of this vocabulary was generally in decline (1945+).

  130. Robert Coren said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    @Richard Wein: I think a more telling point from your "children" example is, rather than that no one would be tempted to call it "wrong", no one would be "tempted" to deny that "childs" would be "wrong".

  131. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

    Vidor: just very briefly. You are obviously intending "gangs of illiterates" to sound pejorative, but most human languages throughout most of human history have been spoken primarily if not exclusively by "gangs of illiterates." Those languages have grammars, often quite complex grammars (even if those grammars are not written down and are not formally taught in anything that looks like a school) and their speakers (once they are past a certain age) can and typically do form complete sentences that are grammatical. If a visiting scholar from a literate culture is interested in understanding the grammar of the particular language, he does exactly the sort of trial-and-error empirical determination of "correctness conditions" Prof. Pullum is talking about until he is sufficiently confident of his understanding to write it up in a book or journal article (and/or, for example, take a stab at starting to translate the Bible into the language in question). If you have trouble figuring out how such people could possibly manage to speak grammatically and in complete sentences without access to literacy, schools, people peeving about other people's usage in the New York Times, and suchlike modern indicia of high social status, I am not sure how much more we can help you.

  132. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    Sorry, I misread Vidor's "group(s)" as "gang(s)" (small type on the blackberry screen but still entirely my mistake) and thus made it sound as if his tone was even more pejorative than he may have intended.

  133. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    The 'children' example is a particularly apt one, as the '-en' is originally a superfluous plural marker tacked onto the existing plural, presumably by one of Vidor's 'groups of illiterates', before it caught on and became standard.

    And… I've ended up coming full circle and making the very point I was moaning about people making in my first comment.

  134. JS said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 10:53 pm

    @Daniel 8/2 12:50
    To the misused likes of crescendo and climax we can indeed add orgasm, from Greek orgasmos 'excitement; swelling' (via Etymonline… and this a sense which per Ngrams seems even to apply to early [18th c.] English usages in medical contexts.) Happily, this new linguistic sophistication enables me to report truthfully that my sexual partners achieve orgasm without exception…

  135. Daniel Trambaiolo said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

    @JS: But do they first climax before they orgasm and then finally reach a crescendo? Because that would be truly impressive. (Sorry if this is getting too personal.)

  136. John Ch said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 8:19 am

    dw said:
    … "The battle reached a crescendo on the third day." However aesthetically unappealing many readers will find this sentence, they will only ever interpret “crescendo” in this context to mean something like "climax." (Right?)

    That's not what I thought; I read it as saying that during the third day, the battle became more and more violent. (Whether the crescendo continued into the night and second day could then depend on whether there were any survivors.)

    But this is probably because I've known "crescendo" only as a musical term since an early age, so that's the only interpretation that made sense to me. Misreading the sentence to say that the battle's climax was on the third day strikes me as, well, a misreading. The climax could have been on the 4th or 5th day; the writer didn't say.

  137. dw said,

    August 5, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    @John Ch:

    The comment you are quoting is by Daniel Trambaiolo, not me.

  138. Daniel said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 2:58 am

    @John Ch: The discussion here mostly seems to have died down, but thanks for your comment.

    Your interpretation would have matched my understanding of the word's meaning until a few days ago, when I learned that many people think of the word as having a second meaning independent of the musical one. If we are aware of this second meaning (which all native speakers should be, having acquired the knowledge through scrupulous reading of dictionaries and linguistics blogs), then it would clearly be the preferred interpretation here. If we are unaware of it, then the context should alert us to the fact that something strange is going on. A musically informed writer wouldn't normally say "reach a crescendo" to mean "begin to crescendo", so it is up to us to consult the dictionaries to learn the new meaning of the word. (Cf. "The battle reached a gavagai on the third day"—clearly not talking about a rabbit.) This may seem like rather a heavy pragmatic burden to place on technically informed but lexicographically uninformed readers, but we had better get used to it. There's no turning back the tide, innit.

    (Incidentally, although it is fascinating to learn the etymological facts about "climax", repeating them doesn't really constitute a good argument against people who object to the colloquial sense of "crescendo": these people aren't really committing the etymological fallacy but rather stating their native speaker intuitions about current usage. Almost nobody alive today will have encountered the technical sense of "climax" as a rhetorical figure before they learn the usual contemporary meaning, but many will have been using the technical meaning of "crescendo" for decades before they eventually discover that others use it differently. What all this suggests is that although people fortunate enough to grow up in illiterate societies have no difficulty acquiring L1 grammatical competence, those of us in literate societies will need to rely on dictionaries and linguistics blogs to keep up to date with the changing language.)

  139. Breffni said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 10:09 am

    Daniel: I don't think you have to resign yourself to constant dictionary-checking to keep up with your native language. After all, frequently updated, widely available dictionaries (not to mention linguistics blogs) are a very recent phenomenon in the history of literacy. Have you thought about how people coped with semantic change in the many centuries before such resources came along? Can't we just do whatever they did?

  140. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 6, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

    Just slightly contra Daniel, the "colloquial" sense of crescendo seems common enough that I have some difficulty believing that one could be a literate member of an Anglophone society for decades (counting from the point at which one had learned to read music and learned the relevant technical jargon) without encountering it. I couldn't even tell you which order I learned them in. I started learning to read music in I think 4th grade and I expect I knew that the flattened "<" up on top meant "get louder" by 5th grade at the latest, and maybe even "get louder, but smoothly rather than suddenly." At what age did I first encounter the "colloquial" sense and was that before or after 4th/5th grade? I really have no idea. Now, it seems possible that the "process" meaning and "result-of-that-process" meaning are conceptually close enough that many people can encounter both and make sense of them in context without any sense of dissonance (to use a musical term loosely) or even with any conscious awareness that these are arguably different meanings rather than different applications of the same core meaning. Perhaps they even only use one sense in their own speech and writing without consciously noticing that there's a different/broader usage that they understand when they hear/read it but don't employ. One does not need that high a degree of self-awareness or conscientious scrupolosity to competently use and understand ones L1, and having a higher-than-median degree of conscious awareness of fine semantic distinctions and contested usage issues may be a very mixed blessing in terms of promoting personal happiness and social peace.

  141. Daniel said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    @Breffni: My comment wasn't meant entirely in earnest, but in response to your question: it all depends what you mean by "cope." Besides the discussion here, the more recent threads on profanities (esp. "twat") and on the word "ornery" provide further anecdotes of how it is possible to think you know the meaning of a word and use it for years or decades before suddenly discovering that your listeners have been thinking you meant something else all along.

  142. Daniel said,

    August 7, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: We may have different intuitions here. I'm not sure I have ever heard anybody use "crescendo" to mean "peak" in ordinary conversation, and wouldn't regard it as "common" – my experience is that the usage occurs in a somewhat elevated style and is more often encountered in writing, news reports etc. (Against this view, the OED describes the usage as "colloquial," but none of their cited examples seems to be in a colloquial register; were the lexicographers having trouble suppressing a dark urge to simply call it "incorrect"?)

    You suggest that the two meanings "are conceptually close enough that many people can encounter both and make sense of them in context," but it isn't clear to me that the conceptual proximity is relevant. How many times would a typical L1 English speaker need to see sentences like "criticism of the government's policy reached a slope in mid-February” before deciding that "peak" is one of the possible meanings of the word "slope" when not talking literally about mountains? Would this be fewer than the number of times required to reach the equivalent conclusion through seeing sentences like "criticism of the government's policy reached a gerbil in mid-February”? Perhaps. I'm not sure. Presumably this could be tested through experiment. Speaking purely personally, my own encounters with "crescendo" in the sense "peak" were always sufficiently rare and ambiguous that I treated them as noise rather than signal, and it was only by reading the explicit discussion here that I realized how many people regard this sense as idiomatically valid.

    >a higher-than-median degree of conscious awareness of fine semantic distinctions and contested usage issues may be a very mixed blessing.


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