The Grammarphobia Blog

The art of the fugue

Q: I was reading an Op-Ed piece that used the medical term “fugue” to describe that dreamlike state of consciousness that so many survivors had after 9-11. Is this term related etymologically to the musical “fugue”?

A: Both words come from the Italian word fuga, meaning flight, which is ultimately derived from the Latin verb fugere (to flee).

The psychiatric “fugue” (think of it as a flight from reality) refers to a sort of amnesiac state in which someone does various things but has no awareness of them when he returns to normal consciousness.

The musical “fugue” (think of it as a flight of harmony) is a composition that weaves one or more melodies in different voices.

The musical “fugue” entered English in the late 16th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a musical composition in which “one part beginneth and the other singeth the same, for some number of notes (which the first did sing).”

The first medical reference in the OED is from a 1901 English translation of a book by Pierre Marie Félix Janet, The Mental State of Hystericals, which describes the condition as “those strange excursions, accomplished automatically, of which the patient has not the least recollection.”

The Latin word fugere and its relatives have also given us “centrifuge,” “fugitive,” “refuge,” “refugee,” “subterfuge,” and others.

I’ll knock off now and take one of my favorite musical flights, with Glenn Gould and the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.